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09 Jul 2015

Mothers in prison: Women, children, and the criminal justice system

Leila Mezoughi on a thought provoking and emotive seminar titled “Women in the Criminal Justice System – mothers too” hosted by Women’s Breakout (a representative body for 56 organisations that provide support for vulnerable women) and Re-Unite (a charity assisting mothers to be reunited with their children after prison).

The seminar opened with senior criminologist and author, Lucy Baldwin, whose focus is mothers in prison. Baldwin outlined society’s preconceived notion that females are nurturing, passive and selfless. This means that when a female offends she is subjected to harsher scrutiny from society, than a man, as she is placed on a higher pedestal. This affects the female offender’s mental state dramatically and can explain the prevalence of mental illness in women’s prisons. Equally worrying, is the fact that this bias has been seen to influence the judiciary into handing women lengthier sentences. The bias, Baldwin adds, is exacerbated when the female offender is a mother.

Baldwin explored a case study, involving a mother receiving a custodial sentence for purchasing a stolen T.V, from a neighbour, on her council estate in Manchester. The judge in his sentencing remarks states “you are supposed to be a role model for your son, you should have reported the items stolen immediately and informed the police of the seller.” This situation is indicative not only of the judicial bias towards mothers but also of the judicial lack of understanding of the working class.  Baldwin concludes the key issue is that the majority (some 80%) of women are given short custodial sentences for non-violent offences. The female prison population has more than doubled since 1995. The deepest concern is that most of these incarcerated women are single mothers. 18,000 children are affected annually by their mother being imprisoned. Only 5% of these children meet their mothers again. Once a child is taken into the care system it is an “uphill battle” to get them home again, regardless of the circumstance of her sentence. How does a mother cope in prison knowing that she has a child outside that may not see her again? How does she deal with the fear that her custodial sentence is a sentence for her child too? These are but a few of the million what-ifs that a mother goes through every waking moment of her sentence.

Yvonne Rogers of Barnardo’s was the next speaker and focused on what the justice system does to children. “Children and young people of prisoners deserve the same chances as anyone else. Yet we know they have worse outcomes. They are serving an unwarranted sentence.” Barnardo’s has been conducting research into the impact on children when their mother is imprisoned. Yvonne explained that the results are of “grave concern” and that the level of irreversible damage done to a child, due to parental separation, has forced Barnardo’s to make this area a “key focus”. A child with a parent in prison is also more likely to end up in prison themselves. This intergenerational cycle of crime is hugely costly to society and to the government.

The resolution is simple: stop handing detrimental short custodial sentences to women for relatively minor offences. In prison, 64% of women reoffend after only a short stint in prison. However, according to figures from Anawim a women’s support centre that offers community based alternatives to custody, only 3% of women using its support services reoffend. Anawim offers vulnerable women including, but not limited to, sex workers, addicts and victims of domestic violence, crucial support to stop the reoffending and works to reintegrate women back into their community. The average cost of a six month prison place for a woman is £28,000. This can be compared to the cost of a place at Anawim which, according to the MOJ, is just £1,360 per women.

This seminar underlined the huge reforms that need to occur in women’s justice. These are not new problems. In 2007 the Corston Report ( an inquiry into women in prison) found that women offenders were overwhelmingly disadvantaged in a system designed for men. Baroness Corston urged the MOJ to make a fundamental u-turn on the position of women in the criminal justice sector. Forty-three recommendations were made to help reduce reoffending and improve the lives of women by introducing the use of women’s centres. However the 2012 ‘Women in Prison’ report found that there has been little to no progress in implementing Corston’s recommendations. Even more concerning is the lack of government interest in reforming women’s justice. In a time of increased austerity, with the criminal justice sector being hit exceptionally hard, it is unclear why the MOJ still continues to ignore recommendations for the use of more cost efficient methods that permanently prevent reoffending such as women’s centres.

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