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Short prison sentences punish children too

Second post by Lucy Baldwin on her recent research which reveals the traumatic impact on children of their mothers being sentenced to short prison sentences.

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This is a second 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. You can find the first overview of the research here. This second post focuses on the impact on children in particular.

Children are also ‘punished’ by their mother’s sentence

In our recent study, Short but Not Sweet, we highlighted, not only the harm caused to mothers by their short, and very short custodial sentences; but additionally, the significant impact on their children. The 17 mothers in the study had between them, no less than 50 children, most of whom were in the mothers’ care immediately prior to her sentence.

Children are often called the ‘innocent’ or ‘invisible’ victims when a parent is imprisoned.  In our study, through the voices of their mothers, the impact on children, sometimes in particular the older children, was clear. Three teenagers in the study (two aged 17, one 19), cared for their siblings whilst their mothers were in prison, two leaving full time education to do so. The implications for their futures is not difficult to imagine.

Mothers felt guilt at their older children’s ‘lost childhoods’, and for the responsibilities their older children ‘’had been forced’’ to take on; one mother described her daughter now as ‘’old beyond her years’’. Several mothers felt their older children were left without formal care arrangements or spent long periods of time unsupervised or ‘’staying with friends’’. One 16-year-old became pregnant whilst her mother was inside, the baby was subsequently adopted – her mother felt sure her daughter would not have become pregnant if she was ‘home’.

Mothers felt children were further harmed or damaged by the lack of contact, in relation to both telephone and visitation contact, impacted on by cost and distance implications. Telephone contact was particularly challenging for mothers who had sibling groups placed across more than one carer, with mothers telling us they often (because of limited funds and opportunity) were forced to ‘’choose’’ which child to ring.  Michelle’s three -year-old daughter and two-year-old twins were cared for by two separate birth fathers. She told us:

I felt guilty if I phoned the twins and not Sinead. But I felt Sinead needed me more, so I’d ring her, but then felt guilty about the twins.

Mothers felt children were further harmed by some of the security measures in place in some prisons, meaning there were restrictions on physical contact during visits. This was particularly upsetting for mothers of younger children and for the children themselves. Jade told us.

It was awful. I wasn’t allowed out of my seat. I wasn’t allowed them on my knee. Its cruel, why punish them? It’s me that’s done wrong.

Sally, described this rule as ‘’heart-breaking’’, telling us that when she tried to explain this rule to her daughter, her daughter replied:

But Mummy, I haven’t done anything naughty, I promise. Shall I go and ask?

Sally said:

That broke my heart it did, made me feel they don’t even trust the children.

Wide range of negative consequences

Despite none of the mothers in our study serving no longer than 34 weeks in custody, the majority under six months; the effects on the children described to us were many. Mothers described their children’s relationships as siblings being changed, especially where they had been separated to different locations. Some mothers felt their children were less close to them and had become closer to their temporary carers. One mother felt her child no longer knew her as her mother. Mothers described children having nightmares, bedwetting, becoming clingy, insecure and angry.

The study highlighted the harm caused to the mothers themselves by these short, and often very short sentences; all served for non-violent offences. But also, very clearly to the children of these mothers. The very welcome Scottish decision to implement a progression from their pre-existing   presumption against sentences of under three months, to a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months is a clear message and recognition that short sentences do more harm than good, and wherever possible community alternatives should be sought. We urge England and Wales to urgently follow suit.

The ‘Short but not Sweet’ report concludes with a number of recommendations for future research. It reiterates the need to revisit the recommendations of the Prison Reform Trusts paper, ‘The Sentencing of Mothers’, as well as making a further ten recommendations of its own. The report provides evidence to support the arguments for a presumption against short sentences per se, but also a clear rethink of when and how we punish mothers – with an urgent call for positive change, in the best interests of mothers themselves, society as a whole, and importantly for the innocent children along with their futures, which are currently being affected in their thousands every year.

The full report can be downloaded here:

Please e mail for hard copies. Senior Lecturer in Criminology. De Montfort University Honorary Research Assistant. Coventry Universit


All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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