Disrupted Lives: Choosing to Challenge Maternal Imprisonment

On 11th March 2021 Clean Break and Birth Companions co-hosted an International Women’s Day event to challenge maternal imprisonment.

I was a speaker on the panel and this is the text of the speech I gave at the event:

Thank you very much Clean Break and Birth Companions for including me in this powerful event tonight. I’m really honoured to be here. 

A report written by Caddle and Crisp and commissioned by the Home Office in 1997, almost 25 years ago said this about mothers in prison: 

“All the evidence from this study and previous studies suggests that imprisoned mothers are in a sense, doubly penalised – they are serving a sentence and at the same time trying to make provision for their children with all the associated difficulties and strains. Fathers on the other hand generally serve their sentence in the knowledge that their partners will continue to care for their children, albeit with difficulty. This fundamental difference in the experience of imprisonment between men and women perhaps needs greater recognition than it currently receives by sentencers and the Prison Service”

This is why we are talking about mothers in prison, because very little has changed.

We know from research that for mothers in prison the greatest cause of anxiety is worry about their children. 

We know from the Visiting Mum scheme that ran in HMP Eastwood Park, that when women had regular supported contact with their children during their prison sentence the incidence of self harm in the prison reduced. Only 50% of mothers who had contact with their children before imprisonment see them during their sentence, and of course with covid and prison lockdowns many mothers in prison over the last year have not seen their children at all.

It is exceptionally difficult for a mother to be in prison with or without her children 

It is exceptionally difficult for children to be without their mother. 

Every year it is estimated that 17,000 children are separated from their mother when she’s sent to prison. What happens to them? 

Many women will be the primary or sole carer for their children as many mothers sent to prison are single parents. 

Most children will move to another carer – perhaps family or friends, occasionally the local authority. The shocking thing is that no one really knows. These children are not accounted for or provided for by the state in any way at all. 

When a child is separated from their parents in the family courts because of abuse or neglect the child’s best interests are the paramount consideration of the court. The child is represented in court by lawyers and a Guardian and if separated from their parents they are provided with alternative carers who the state trains, supports and pays. 

In contrast when a child is separated from their mother because she is sent to prison no one has any responsibility for that child. Their care is usually taken on be female family members of friends and once again there is a gendered imbalance of the harms of imprisonment. 

Children are moved around placements. They often are pushed further into poverty. Research on this issue world wide has found that these children’s life chances are diminished, they are less likely to be in education, employment or training as young adults, they are more likely to suffer from mental and physical illness and alcohol or drug addiction and they are more likely than their peers to die before the age of 65. 

They are likely to experience disrupted attachments, disrupted education and disrupted childhoods

It only takes a few weeks in prison for a woman to lose her home, her children and her job but it could take her years to get them back again, if she ever does. 

So presumably these women who are sent to prison, really need to be there? 

I don’t think so

Let’s look at some statistics and go right back to look at the kinds of things women are prosecuted for … 

  • 74% of prosecutions for non payment of TV licences were against women and account for 30% of all female convictions 
  • 72% of prosecutions for truancy of children were against women 
  • 34% of women’s cases at the Crown Court are for shoplifting 
  • 55% of prosecutions were for summary offences 
  • Black women are more likely than white women to be prosecuted 

Those are prosecutions and of course not all of those end up with imprisonment So what about the women who end up in prison. Why are they there? There are three distinct groups:

  1. There are women who have been imprisoned before they are found guilty of any offence. Many women are sent to prison on remand, that is before any finding of guilt, and of those women 60% of those who are sent by the magistrates court and 40% of those sent by the Crown Court do not get a prison sentence when their case finally goes to court. 

So one group of women sent to prison are women who are ultimately found not to be guilty of any crime

2. There are women who are sent to prison after conviction.

When a court sentences it has a number of options – a discharge, a fine, a community sentence, and if it decides a sentence of imprisonment is necessary it can suspend that sentence for up to two years, provided the sentence itself is less than two years. 

It says in the statutes that prison should be used as a punishment when the offence ‘was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence’ (CJA 2003 section 152(2) ) The Sentencing Guidelines in 2020 said that a custodial sentence may be imposed when it is necessary to protect the public. 

The following statistics are from the Ministry of Justice statistics on Women in the Criminal Justice System 2019:

36% of women are in prison for theft ; 19% are in prison for summary offences– that is an offence carrying a maximum penalty of less than six months 

Only 10% are in prison for violent offences and 1% in prison for sexual offences

Black women have the highest custody rate

50% of women in prison are sentenced to less than 3 months 

18% are sentenced to between 3 and 6 months

7.5% are sentenced to between 6 and 12  months

So in total 75% of the sentenced women in prison have been sentenced to less than 12 months, of which they will only serve half the time inside the prison.

A further 8% of women have been sentenced to terms between 12 months and 2 years

83% of women are therefore in prison for terms of imprisonment which could have been suspended

3. There are women who are on recall.

These are women who have served the custodial part of their sentence and they account for 8% of women in prison. Everyone who serves any length of short custodial sentence is supervised for 12 months after release and they can be recalled to prison for a breach of their licence conditions. So many are recalled to prison beyond the expiry of their original sentence.

In the past couple of years some changes have taken place with regard to sentencing and the consideration of children. 

Sentencers are now supposed to consider the impact of child dependents when they sentence a primary carer and if the impact on the children makes a sentence disproportionate then they should consider suspending the sentence or giving a non custodial sentence. 

I believe judges are engaging with these changes, but there hasn’t been any formal evaluation to know if things are changing. 

The Human Rights Committee held an enquiry into children whose mothers are in prison and they revisited the issue during Covid, and they have made recommndations to the government on sentencing, data collection, pregnant women and support during imprisonment, but the government have not acted on the recommendations. 

The consequence of the over use of imprisonment for mothers is disrupted lives, not just theirs but their children’s and it has life long impacts.

We need to stop using prison as a punishment for mothers 

Too much harm is caused and this is not justice 

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