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The profound and persisting impact of prison on mothers
Lucy Baldwin explores the persisting impact of maternal imprisonment on maternal identity and role.

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The persistent and enduring pains of maternal imprisonment

Lucy Baldwin, our foremost expert on maternal imprisonment and regular contributor to the blog, was kind enough to share the executive summary of her PhD with me last week. Entitled,  “Motherhood Challenged: Exploring the persisting impact of maternal imprisonment on maternal identity and role, the research is based on in-depth research with 43 criminalised mothers. Dr Baldwin records the experiences of mothers from their early lives through getting into trouble with the criminal justice system, prison and release. This is a detailed and carefully argued piece of research which, even in the executive summary  version, runs to 147 pages so I can only highlight a very few of the key issues in this blog post, so, if maternal imprisonment is a subject you are interested in, do please download the report yourself.

Overview

The research focuses on the voices of the 43 mothers and their experiences. Here’s Dr Baldwin’s summary:

“The Mothers described criminalised motherhood as a paradox; they experienced judgement, discrimination and oppression alongside joy and hope. When motherhood was combined with criminalisation, the judgement and gaze the Mothers experienced in a patriarchally constructed and influenced society were magnified. Navigating through the criminal justice system and especially through imprisonment was a painful experience for Mothers. Not least because of the physical separation from children, but additionally due to institutional thoughtlessness and lack of recognition concerning their maternal identity, maternal emotions, and maternal role; which pointedly occurred at every stage of the criminal justice system. Subsequently resulting in missed and lost opportunities to support mothers and their children.”

Missed opportunities

One of the themes of the report is the many missed opportunities for help in most of these women’s lives. Sometimes help wasn’t available during adverse childhood experiences. Sometimes women were too scared to seek help for fear of losing their children, only to subsequently lose them when they were sent to prison.

One mother described once asking for help ‘before things got really bad’. She described being so ‘off her head on crack’, she had ‘passed out’ on the sofa and the social worker had climbed in through the window to see her. The mother disclosed to him she was smoking crack, that her partner had died and that she ‘needed help’. She described how he looked in her cupboards, and over the next couple of days phoned the school to check on the children’s welfare only to come back and tell her that since the house was clean and there was food in the cupboards, he didn’t know how he could support her.

Many of the mothers in this study spoke of being poorly, negatively or inadequately mothered and of the guilt and distress they experienced in feeling that they had not done better themselves.

Mother and child at HMP Sutton Park
© Andy Aitchison

Prison experiences

Mothers in this study described how they struggled specifically as mothers to adjust to prison life, and how they felt that prison for a mother is ‘a million times harder than if you’re not a mother’. Nonetheless, for some mothers prison was the first time they had been able to access support, or feel safe away – away from domestic abusers, and with a roof over their heads. However, even when mothers felt there had been some positives from their imprisonment, the mothers still felt, that they should have been supported/safe etc. in the community, could still have been ‘punished’ in the community and should not have been sent to prison. 

The mothers who were jailed for violent offences did not question the justice of their incarceration but did question the way in which their imprisonment impacted on their motherhood and their children, and all felt there was considerable
room for improvement. The remaining mothers felt a community sentence would have not only been more effective in terms of their rehabilitation, but also that it would have been less harmful to them and their children.

Mothers in this research described how being separated from their children, and the lack of acknowledgement of their maternal role and identity had a profound impact on them, and often their children. They described how institutional thoughtlessness contributed to their sense of invisible motherhood, which in turn impacted on their ability to cope and ability/willingness to engage in sentence planning or rehabilitative activities.

 

Experiences on release

All of the mothers in the study described how, although they had been desperate for release, they had felt unprepared for it – especially in relation to their maternal role, maternal identity and maternal emotions. The mothers who were hoping to or were certain to re unite with their children were focussed on reuniting with their children and all that this entailed. The motherhood role remained their primary concern, which was sometimes in conflict with the expectations of supervision – for example reporting to the probation service on the first day of release – as opposed to going home to be with children.

Dr Baldwin discusses  experiences of trying to become a mother again on release through mothers’ descriptions of their attempts to renegotiate and repair their motherhood as they re-enter the lives of their children and families revealed the considerable challenges they faced. The Mothers described how they would strive to come to terms with the collateral damage of their imprisonment in terms of enduring guilt, shame, losses, changed relationships, post-prison supervision and long-lasting trauma.

Several Mothers described their relationships with their children as ‘forever changed’. Some Mothers with older or adult children felt their relationships with their children would never be as strong or at least the same again.

The research is a painful read with mothers’ voices first and foremost:

 

Conclusions

Dr Baldwin sets out the conclusions of her research and its implications for people working in the prison and probation services:

“The Criminal Justice System is largely designed by men for men, in places it essentially fails criminalised women, especially mothers; whose needs have often been neglected or ignored… The consequences of that failure [to support mothers through imprisonment and release] had an impact on mothers and children’s lives, often for decades. …
The whole Criminal Justice System, particularly prison and probation, is currently failing to fully embrace or take the opportunity to harness motherhood as a motivating and rehabilitative factor – which resulted in many missed opportunities to facilitate desistance & prevent reoffending.”

She calls for motherhood to be factored into supervision and sentence planning.

Improvements in the way we help mothers in contact with the criminal justice system will not only improve their outcomes but the outcomes for their children, and sometimes their children’s children.

 

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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