Changing the Conversation

When I set out 7 years ago to try to change the way mothers were sentenced, I thought there were two big barriers to achieving change. One was judicial thinking (which I decided to make the focus of my work), and the other was public perception.

Our criminal justice system is in desperate need of financial investment and political will to bring real change. Secret Barrister’s ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’ is a bestseller. We know there are big problems, but unlike other public services (the NHS), there is not a ground swell of public support calling for the proper funding of Legal Aid, improvement of our prisons, and a willingness to accept that we cannot have criminal justice until we have social justice.

In my research on children whose mums are imprisoned, it has become very clear that we live in a society prejudiced against those who are convicted and punished, particularly if the punishment is imprisonment. It’s assumed, by and large, that ‘they’re not like us’. That ‘we’ who haven’t spent time in prison, are somehow a different sort of person.We live in a society where the media relishes stories of ‘badness’ and ‘goodness’ and attempts to divide society into ‘them’ and ‘us’ whatever the issue.

This month two books are being published which I hope will begin to bring about a change in people’s attitudes to those who are criminalised, and the children of those individuals. ‘Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison’, by Mim Skinner, and ‘Seen & Heard: 100 poems by parents and children affected by imprisonment’, edited by Lucy Baldwin and Ben Raikes.  We may not see ourselves in the stories and poetry, but we will see other people, who have the same hopes, fears, loves, terrors and aspirations. These books don’t ignore the fact that people in prison have been found to have committed a crime, but they do make us think about whether the real difference between ‘us and them’ may be the circumstances we’ve faced.

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Like most of us who work with or for women in the criminal justice system, Mim Skinner’s overriding concern when writing the book was not to speak ‘for’ or ‘about’ women, whilst also bringing to the public’s attention stories of lives we don’t normally hear about.

The resulting book is authentic, engaging, eye-opening and very readable. Mim is a great storyteller and brings to us the unseen places and the unheard conversations buried deep inside one of the handful of prisons in England where women are housed. Mim came to prison as a young (and dare I say naïve?) art teacher. Her sense of bewilderment with the institution, the rules, the complexities is communicated with the reader right from the opening chapter where an extra clause was added to the group agreement after a pair of craft scissors were used for some unauthorised hair trimming (not the sort of trim you get at the hairdressers), to the difficulties she had when trying to take a giant leek home from the prison veggie patch. Expertly woven into the stories are facts and figures, explanations of the complex order of the prison world, and crucially, accounts and poetry from women themselves.

There is plenty of humour and plenty of heartbreak. I read the book a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t shake the story of Paige who was desperate to keep her unborn baby with her in prison. When the baby was removed from her shortly after giving birth she couldn’t go on anymore ,and took her own life. Her death was announced to staff by an A4 page taped beside the fingerprint entry scanner.

Mim writes, ‘Headlines and news reports of prison leave us with a boiled-down narrative of goodies and baddies – violent offenders, neglectful mothers, and incurable psychopaths if you read one paper, or cruel officers, the evil establishment and sexist judges if you read another. But, very rarely, just humans. When I started working in prisons, part of me expected to find this pantomime cast of characters. Instead I met wondeful, funny, brave and resilient people with complicated stories – on both sides of the bars.’

In 2018, according to the Ministry of Justice statistics, 69% of women were sentenced to less than 6 months in prison (meaning they will spend half of that time in prison before being released ‘on licence’). Just a few weeks of imprisonment is long enough to lose a tenancy and your children, but not long enough to get any rehabilitative support. 38% of women do not have any housing to go to on release.

These are shocking statistics and ultimately affect everyone in our society so it’s time this was something we all are concerned about. Well done to Mim for being brave enough to try to do a pretty tricky thing.  The BBC are interested in adapting it for television but make sure you can say you read the book first.

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According to the most recent estimates, every year in England and Wales the parents of 312,000 children are sent to prison. Do we hear anything about these children? Not usually. The combination of stigma and the general lack of concern shown to them by the state has, up until recently, prevented their stories from being heard. As a consequence these children face discrimination and difficulties, not because of action or inaction on their part, but because of something their parent has done which the state has chosen to punish with imprisonment. I have spent time with children whose mothers are in prison and I have longed to share their voices with a bigger audience.

Well done to Lucy Baldwin and Ben Raikes, who together have collected 100 poems written by parents and children affected by imprisonment. The Introduction to the book explains how the project began.

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At the launch of the book last week parents spoke of how their children were only getting though the experience of having their other parent in prison because of the support they were receiving from charities which support children of prisoners. Children Heard and Seen, based in Oxfordshire, and My Time, based in Liverpool, make a life-changing difference to children at one of the most difficult times in their lives.

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We know from research evidence that children of prisoners face multiple disadvantages which will affect them not just in the short term but in the long term too. They are at increased risk of mental health and addiction problems they are likely to earn less than their counterparts, they experience changes of carer, home and school, their education is often disrupted, relational changes affect future stability they live in increased poverty, they experience social isolation and shame; they develop behavioural problems stemming from their ‘confounding grief’ and they have an increased likelihood of criminal offending themselves. (Hagan and Dinovitzer, 1999; Link and Phelan, 2001: 287-294; Osgood et al., 2005; Dallaire, 2007; Murray and Farrington, 2008; Giordano, 2010;Dallaire and Wilson, 2010; Cho, 2011; Hagan and Foster, 2012; Turney, 2014; Minson, 2017;; Minson, 2018). A study published last year found that children who have experienced parental imprisonment are more likely to die before the age of 65 than their peers, and the likelihood is increased when it is their mother who has been imprisoned during their childhood (van de Weijer, S.G.A., Smallbone, H.S. & Bouwman, V. J Dev, 2018).

It doesn’t get much more serious than the consequences set out above, and yet as a society we have paid minimal attention to the needs of these children, who are just children – loving, fun, playful, intelligent, curious, resilient, frightened, nervous children like yours and mine.

What can I do ?

There are 3 things you can do.

  1.  Buy these books. Profits from Seen and Heard will go directly to the two charities mentioned above.  Jailbirds is available to order here.
  2. Share them with your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, MP. The chapter from Jailbirds on mothers is being published in The Guardian today so do share it widely.
  3. Write reviews on online platforms as this will increase the number of people who see the books and go on to read them.

The statistics suggest that there is a child with a parent in prison in every school. This affects every community and unless we de-stigmatise it and support children and families the effects will continue.

Congratulations Mim, Lucy and Ben.

Well done for amplifying voices which we need to hear.

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