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Counting the cost of maternal imprisonment
Prisoners pushing their babies at HMP Styal
Crest Advisory research find the effects of maternal imprisonment can be severe and long-lasting on children, leading to exclusion and exploitation.

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System-wide approach needed

A new report published today by Crest Advisory is the latest piece of research highlighting the impact of maternal imprisonment and the ongoing failure of the current justice system to address the issue. Crest calls for a whole systems approach which identifies the existing responses not only on the life chances of imprisoned mothers and their children, but also the economic impact through potentially avoidable costs which accrue.

Overall issues

Crest found that a deep distrust of local authority social services, compounded by poor communication and information sharing, forms a significant barrier to engaging mothers with services which could help prevent them from offending and support prolonged desistance. The research also suggests there is a significant cohort of mothers in the criminal justice system who have had children removed from their care and that we do not fully understand their situation.

 The research found that the effects of maternal imprisonment can be severe and long-lasting on children, leading to exclusion from school, increased vulnerability to exploitation, mental health issues and youth crime, ultimately leading to incarceration. Children are not routinely offered targeted support to deal with the acute trauma of separation from their mother which could reduce the impacts. The financial and social cost of this missed opportunity is significant. Crest calculates that interventions with children affected by maternal imprisonment were costing the taxpayer as much as £265,008 per family when the cost of the mother’s custodial sentence is taken into consideration.
 Although there are existing sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure judges and magistrates consider sole or primary carer status as a mitigating factor, awareness of and application of these guidelines is low.

Key findings

The report authors, Julia Pitman and Jessica Hull, organise their findings into six main categories:

Data collection on maternal status is inconsistent, limiting the ability of relevant agencies to understand the scope and scale of those affected by maternal imprisonment

  • Many agencies don’t proactively record this information and, where they do, data collection is inconsistent

  • The way questions are worded is vital to ensuring all maternal circumstances are recorded, not just sole or primary carer status

  • Reluctance to disclose maternal status for fear of social services involvement is an important barrier to data collection

The trauma of separation from children is not sufficiently recognised or understood by the prison system

  • Mothers experience significant emotional distress which prisons are not equipped to deal with. Behaviour linked to this distress can be labelled as aggressive, which perversely counts against mothers in procedures related to contact with their children

  • Uniformed prison staff working on the wing face challenges in identifying and supporting mothers with the trauma of separation from children

  • Practical barriers within the system undermine the ability of mothers to maintain contact with their children, including ROTL processes, prison transfers and closed prison conditions

Maternal rights are undermined by poor relationships with social services

  • Mothers in prison often don’t know their parental rights, piecing knowledge together through conversations with other prisoners over time. This can result in long periods with no contact or visitation until mothers assert their rights

  • A lack of consistency from social workers in their approach to prison visits and contact with children creates a postcode lottery for mothers

  • Insufficient steps are taken to ensure mothers can engage in local authority meetings and court proceedings related to their children’s care

Mothers face a specific set of challenges on release from prison

  • The lack of appropriate housing for women is a barrier to re-establishing contact with children and the application process for social housing creates a ‘Catch 22’ for mothers attempting to get a home big enough to accommodate their children

  • Mothers are often unprepared for and unsupported with the challenges of rebuilding relationships with their children, which can include anger and resentment from older children and attachment issues in younger children

  • Probation services don’t sufficiently recognise and support the specific needs of mothers, undermining their ability to maximise motherhood as a rehabilitation asset

Maternal imprisonment is a significant trauma for children with potentially devastating consequences

  • Arrest and court proceedings can be traumatic for children. Their voices are not being heard throughout the criminal justice process

  • A lack of honest communication with children about what is happening heightens confusion and creates distrust

  • Stigma and shame around maternal imprisonment has adverse impacts on children’s education and social relationships

  • In the longer term, maternal imprisonment can have life-long adverse effects for children, and therefore a significant cost to society

Opportunities to divert mothers out of the criminal justice system are being missed

  • The removal of a child/children by social services is a common trigger for substance misuse and toxic relationships which can lead to further offending. It is likely that there is a significant cohort of women in prison who are mothers whose children were removed some time prior to the offence for which they were given a custodial sentence

  • The journey of mothers who have experienced the removal of a child into the criminal justice system is not sufficiently recognised or understood, nor are these mothers captured by current data collection systems

  • Diversionary schemes and community orders are not addressing the needs of mothers who offend, leaving many in a cycle of short sentences

  • Awareness of relevant sentencing guidelines related to sole and primary carers is low, and the judiciary are failing to adequately consider the impact of custody on children

© Andy Aitchison

Principles for reform

Crest Advisory sets out three broad principles which should guide the response to mitigating the impact of maternal imprisonment on mothers, children and society as a whole.

  1. Mothers should only be sent to prison as a last resort. Prison sentences for minor offences and short sentences are counterproductive. Tailored, trauma-informed interventions with mothers in the community and greater awareness of and adherence to relevant sentencing guidelines would ensure that fewer mothers are sent to prison

  2. Children affected by maternal imprisonment must be offered specialist support. It is vital that agencies working with children understand and can recognise the impacts of maternal imprisonment and are able to refer children to bespoke support in their local area

  3. Maternal identity and the impact of separation from children must be recognised, understood and supported by all agencies working with mothers who have committed a criminal offence.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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