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Prison telephones often leave mothers and children disconnected
Natalie Booth's research finds that women prisoners often can't even talk to their children on the phone.

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This is a guest post by Dr Natalie Booth,Lecturer in Criminology at De Montfort University in Leicester based on her doctoral research findings which have been published in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Journal, available here.  You can follow Natalie on Twitter @NatalieBooth17

Mother-child contact in prison

The very welcome publication of the Farmer Review last year has led to increased interest and discussion about family contact in prison, and ways to strengthen prisoners’ family ties. This attention is particularly important for women; as the most painful aspect of imprisonment for most mothers in prison is the separation from their children. We also know that children are ‘punished’ by the custodial sentence.

In England and Wales, prisoners can have contact with their family members through prison visits, telephones and letter-writing (postal and in some prisons, via email). Academic research has tended to focus on how families stay in contact through prison visits which means much less is known about other forms of communication, including telephone contact.

Through the voices of fifteen imprisoned mothers, the published article in Criminology and Criminal Justice examined the different ways the mothers had attempted to stay in contact with their 39 children whilst in custody. The findings draw attention to the importance of telephones for sustaining frequent and meaningful mother-child contact, and highlight the limitations of current provisions.

The first weeks: re-connecting with children


‘At least one 5 minute free phone call should be offered on reception to enable women to resolve urgent family and childcare issues’ (Prison Service Order 4800, 2008: 9)

Several of the mothers in the study had to wait a number of days to telephone their children and families after being taken into prison custody. One mother, Betty, described her first night in custody as a “nightmare” as she was “frightened to death” because she wasn’t aware who was looking after her three children when she was taken into prison.

Another mother in the study, Keira, explains how it took two weeks for her prison telephone account to be configured. This meant she was unable to speak with her children during the first weeks of her sentence to find out “how they are” or “where they are”. Telephone contact is only permitted one-way from prison, and so without a telephone account, she was unable to find out any information about them.

These findings not only show how the above prison regulations in PSO 4800 were not being consistently followed across the female prison estate, they also reveal how crucial opportunities for families to re-connect on the telephone early into the sentence were not being made possible.

Given that many mothers, like Betty and Keira, had lived with their children before being imprisoned, these early telephone calls are vital to enable them to sort childcare arrangements and provide support and reassurance to their children. Research has repeatedly found how damaging and disruptive maternal imprisonment can be and these new findings show how poor telephone provisions created additional, unnecessary challenges for mothers and families in the first days and weeks of being separated.

Call costs and privileges in prison

The study found how the high ‘cost of calling’ from prison directly affected mothers’ opportunities to speak with their children on the telephone. The Prison Reform Trust found that calling from prison was six times more expensive than in the community. Consequently, the quality, length and frequency of telephone contact were hindered by expensive charges which the mothers were struggling to afford. For instance, a mother of four, Sarah explains how she was always “rushing on the phone” and “squeezing” every penny available to be able to talk to her children from prison.

In-cell telephones helped the mothers call children around the prison regime and school times, and were highly valued by those with access to them. For instance a mother of two, Esther proposed that: “every prison should have [them] because it really does make a difference”. Recently the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, announced plans to roll out in-cell telephones across the prison estate. Whilst this is a welcome improvement to prison telephone provisions, it should be remembered that this initiative – and the subsequent telephone contact families can achieve – will be thwarted if the phone charges in prison remain stubbornly high.

Mothers who were ‘enhanced’ in the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme explained that benefits included more frequent and flexible access to prison telephones. The pairing of family contact with prisoners’ IEP status was identified as an issue in the male prison estate by Lord Farmer’s review (2017). From the child’s rights-based perspective, these practices mean that contact is premised on their parent’s behaviour in prison, rather than the children’s Rights to family life; as clearly stipulated in UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989). The evidence shows how IEP processes can undermine children’s Rights, and therefore raises significant moral, legal and ethical questions about the operational practices in prisons.

Concluding remarks

Prison telephone provisions are crucial for enabling and sustaining mother-child contact during maternal imprisonment. Yet, the findings in this article highlight several limitations and inadequacies with current phone facilities and operational practices in female prisons. The promise of another Farmer-type review focussing on family ties for women in the criminal justice system is welcomed as, at the centre of this are mothers and children separated by a custodial sentence but often wanting and hoping to stay a part of one another’s lives.

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