Blog: Imprisonment for mothers of young children
Published: 8 May 2019
If a woman goes to prison in the UK, she will be separated from any children she has who are over 18 months old. This can be devastating for both the mother and the child.
For a child, separation from their main caregiver can be extremely damaging, especially if they are under four years old, and will often lead to ongoing social problems and mental health issues.
For a mother, even a short period in prison can mean that they lose their home, due to loss of income. Finding accommodation post-release can be difficult because landlords are often not willing to rent to those with a criminal record. Lack of accommodation makes it more difficult for them to regain custody of their children on their return to the community.
The majority of women in prison have been incarcerated for non-violent and minor offences. They might be there for only six months or even six weeks, but that is enough time for them to lose their homes and custody of their children.
For the last ten years, I’ve been researching issues around mothers and pregnant women in prison. During that time, how the UK treats these women has changed very little. In 2016 and 2017, I travelled to Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA on a Churchill Fellowship to study how those countries approached this issue.
There aren’t many women’s prisons in the UK, therefore a woman is more likely to be imprisoned further from home than a man. Arranging visits can be difficult and expensive and this can limit the contact that an imprisoned mother has with her child. In Denmark, some prisons have family houses, which are separate units situated within the prison walls where a mother (or father) could live with her child part-time. The child might spend a whole weekend there and spend the rest of the week with the other parent or carer. Maintaining a meaningful relationship through regular and sustained contact was not only beneficial for the child, it also gave parents a powerful reason not to reoffend once they were released.
Below: Rachel (right) with Marianne Huemueller, the manager of a Mother-Child House in Vechta, Germany
In the UK, women with a child under 18 months old can apply for a place in a prison unit that allows a woman to keep her child with her while she serves her sentence. However, the criteria for a place in these units is strict and acceptance is not guaranteed. The justice systems in many European countries were more flexible – women I met often had the option to defer their sentence until they had secured a place in a unit where their children could live with them. In the Netherlands in particular, they tried very hard not to send mothers of young children and pregnant women to prison at all – suspended or community sentences were common alternatives.
In New York, I visited some inspiring programmes providing alternatives to imprisonment. Among them were residential units where women lived with children up to the age of 14 while receiving a range of support services, such as drug rehabilitation, therapy or help with finding a job. Rather than punishing these women, they were helping them to tackle the issues that led them to offend in the first place. The women were given flexible leaving dates – their sentence might be six months, but they could stay for longer if they were not yet ready or able to move on.
I’m convinced that the UK should be replicating the initiatives that I saw overseas, and particularly those I visited in New York. If we keep removing babies and harshly punishing people for minor crimes, then nothing will ever change – we’ll continue to see the same negative cycles repeated from one generation to the next. I want to see the justice system treating these women with compassion and focusing not on punishing them but on supporting them to be good mothers.