Short sentences traumatise mothers & their children

This is a guest post by Lucy Baldwin (@LucyBaldwin08) (de Montfort University) & Rona Espstein (Coventry University) on the distressing findings of their recent research study on the impact of short custodial sentences on mothers and their children.

Short but not sweet

It took a long time to readjust to all living together again. Everything changed in those few short weeks, … […] …  it took a long time to feel normal again. I still get nightmares about not getting out of prison. (Michelle, mother of twins aged 2, and toddler aged 3, served 9 weeks for benefit fraud).

Context

Despite widespread misgivings about short sentences, their use has continued to rise; in 1993 only a third of women entering custody were sentenced to 6 months or less. More recent figures reveal, most women in prison are serving short, or very short, sentences, or periods of remand. Seventy-two per cent are serving sentences of six months or less, over 67%, are serving 12 months or less, 56% three months or less (Ministry of Justice figures 2016).  This small-scale study, part funded by the Oakdale Trust, was undertaken with a view to exploring the impact of short sentences (less than 12 months), on mothers and their children.  We sought the information via a sample of 17 mothers, who between them had fifty children. We hoped to give voice to the mothers themselves, enabling them to describe their experiences, and that of their children via a series of questions.

The participants

All the mothers had at least one of their children in their care prior to their imprisonment, the children’s ages ranged from 18 months – 19 years old. The mothers were sentenced to custodial sentences ranging from 2 weeks to 34 weeks (all bar two, less than six months), all, for nonviolent offences.

The Findings

We found that all of the mothers felt both them and their children, were negatively affected by their sentences, despite the ‘shortness’ of their sentence. Many of the mothers had pre-existing mental health issues, with several taking prescribed medication, including antidepressants — these mother’s all experienced delays in accessing medication –  most for over a week, two mothers, over 2 weeks. Mothers described the impact of this:

‘’I felt the worst I’ve ever felt’, ‘’I self-harmed for the first time ever’, I felt anxious all of the time’’

and two mothers described feeling ‘suicidal ‘in this period.

Mothers also felt their physical health suffered, two mothers miscarried in prison, one in an ambulance in handcuffs after bleeding in her cell alone overnight. Both these mothers felt the ‘stress’ of being imprisoned had at least contributed to them miscarrying. Mothers felt that contact with children was limited and challenging, in part because of the prohibitive costs and distance – which resulted in several mothers (and therefore children), having one or no visits during their separation. Mothers described children screaming down the phone, and all parties being distressed during visits. Not simply due to the visit ending, but also due to the restrictions placed on them during visits; for example, physical contact;

 ‘It was awful anyway. I wasn’t allowed out of my seat. I wasn’t allowed them on my knee. It’s cruel, why punish them if it’s me that’s done wrong’ (Jade, children aged 3,4,7. Nine weeks, shoplifting).

‘Even when I explained why, my daughter said, “But Mummy I wouldn’t do anything naughty, I promise, shall I go and ask.”  That broke my heart that did. It made me feel they don’t even trust children. (Sally, children aged 17,14,12,4. 16 weeks fraud. 1st offence).

Mothers felt that support during their sentence was inconsistent, reporting both positive and negative experiences. Although PACT , was reported by mothers as consistently helpful and supportive, several mothers stated they ‘would not have gotten through the sentence without PACT staff’.  The majority of the fifty children the mothers were separated from, were cared for by family and friends, most often grandmothers. Mothers felt that the carers and children were not adequately supported, financially or emotionally – leaving the children further disadvantaged and vulnerable to being taken into care at a later date (which in fact happened in one of our cases),

‘my sister couldn’t cope, she put my kids in care’.

Four mothers in the study were evicted from their houses because of their sentences.  Losing their home means many children are taken into care – and without a home it is impossible for families to reunite, it become a circular problem for many. Anna, wrote,

‘being evicted means landlords won’t give me a chance and the council don’t make a priority because I don’t have my kids yet, but I can’t get them because I don’t have a home. So, I’m stuck.

For those not evicted, many faced leaving prison to accumulated debt and rent arrears, rendering the women vulnerable to future eviction and/or re offending. Which of course also renders children vulnerable to disruption and homelessness.

Mothers had a mixed response to supervision, with one mother described her probation worker as ‘’amazing and really helpful’’, with other feeling like supervision was “nothing more than a check in…it was pointless’’. Several mothers stated they would have appreciated and benefited from earlier support -prior to going to prison:

that might have stopped me going to prison in the first place.

Conclusions

In addition to recommendations for further research, we strongly echo the findings and recommendations of the Prison Reform Trust’s paper, ‘The Sentencing of Mothers’, and we make a further ten recommendations of our own.

In summary, we call for a presumption against short custodial sentences (following the example set by Scotland), we call for the abandonment of any intent to build additional prisons for women, instead focusing on community based alternatives and diversion away from the CJS.

We call for a presumption against the sentencing to custody of mothers with dependent children and pregnant mothers; with a further call for mother and bay units to be moved into the community, be more geographically evenly located, their use be widened to support mothers affected by, and at risk of being affected by the CJS, and most importantly, designed and ran in consultation with the principles and expertise of Birth Companions.

We additionally call for the development of accurate recording of the actual number of mothers sentenced to custody, the numbers of children affected and the arrangement of their care.

We call for the carers of children of incarcerated parents to be more formally and fully recognised and supported in the, often vital role they play in keeping families together.

We ask for an invigorated return to the Corston recommendations and a committed investment in the development and maintenance of community resources for women, as both diversionary support and post sentence options.

We ask that where mothers are imprisoned and separated from their children, that prisons explore determinedly ways in which more effective family contact can be supported and facilitated, (ie more flexible, child friendly visiting spaces, with thought given to technology for improved contact via skype/video/ in cell phones etc).

Finally, we call for the urgent development of gender specific sentencing guidelines, thereby providing Sentencers clear diversion pathways and instruction on the very extreme circumstances where custody should and could be applied.

For positive change to occur there needs to be a recognition of the widespread harm cause by the unnecessary and overzealous imprisonment of parents, which is compounded further when that parent is a mother.

 

Lucy Baldwin has written a second post for this blog based on her research which focuses particularly on the impact on children whose mothers are sentenced to short terms of imprisonment.

 

 

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