Women in prison: a snapshot – by Lucy Baldwin

A system which fails women

Most women are imprisoned for non-violent offences (over 80%) and most women are serving short custodial sentences (over 75%). More than 50% of women have experienced abuse either as a child, adult or both. Fourty six percent of women who enter prison have previously attempted suicide. Many have substance misuse and mental health issues. Many come from backgrounds where poverty, homelessness and domestic abuse feature heavily.

When a father goes to prison, 90% of children remain in their own home and in the care of their mother. When a mother goes to prison, only 5% remain in their own homes. 95% are displaced to various caregivers – less than 10% to their fathers. They have been described as a ‘vulnerable population’. On top of this, more than 66% are mothers of children under 16, many more mothers and grandmothers of adult offspring, often as sole or primary carers for children and grandchildren.

Being a mother in prison

Because there are far fewer female prisons in the UK, most women are between 60-150 miles away from home, there are no female prisons in Wales or on the Isle of Wight. Visits are often irregular if they occur at all, especially for women on short sentences. When visits do occur, they often involve long arduous journeys with terrible access to public transport. Imagine making this journey with a baby and two toddlers. A mother who comes to prison with a young baby may be able apply for and eventually, after an anxious wait, be able to access a place in a mother and baby unit (as long as her child is under 18 months).

However, the reality for many mothers in this situation is that they then have to ‘choose’, whether to take this place – and leave other children so far away that visits would be impossible, or they make the heartbreaking decision to separate from their baby in order to keep the family together.

“I felt like my heart was being ripped out leaving all of them, but my baby, my boy – I’d literally never left him – I thought I’d die, I couldn’t breathe when I left. I could have had him with me, but I didn’t want the others to think I loved him more, I wanted them to stay together, I just couldn’t separate my kids from each other- but it nearly broke me.” – Rita

The reality of visits

It would be natural to assume that visiting time is a happy time for all. However, for many families this isn’t the case. For mums in closed prisons, with closed conditions and the accompanying restrictions (which often have no bearing on the mother’s own personal level of risk of harm), visits are often traumatic and difficult for both mums and children.

“My son fell over on a visit, he really hurt himself, my natural instinct was to get up to rush to him, to comfort him, he was screaming… I was pushed roughly back into my seat – I wasn’t allowed to go to him or even to comfort him on my knee… How do you explain that to a two year old?” – Paula

“How could I drag them the six hours to come here on a coach? That’s without thinking even of the taxi from the coach station to the prison. Add tickets for the three kids and my sister. How can they afford that, how can I ask her to do that? A full day with miserable kids, for an hour and half visit that might be cancelled anyway. They did it once and it was a lockdown so I didn’t get to see them. It broke their hearts and broke me. Never again will I put them through that, but now, I haven’t seen my kids for six months. It’s torture.” – Sally

Multiple punishments

Mothers in prison bear their own pain and punishment for a prison sentence, most often for a minor offence. But they also bear the pain and witness the additional punishment to their children. Children then carry that pain forward, families are damaged, sometimes beyond repair. Prison should be reserved for all but the most serious of offenders. To fail to recognise this doesn’t only fail the women. It fails their children, and therefore our entire society, often for generations.

This guest blog was written by Lucy Baldwin, senior lecturer, criminologist and author/editor of Mothering Justice. You can follow Lucy on Twitter. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers and experts. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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