Short but not sweet: the effect of short periods in prison on mothers and on their children

Lucy Baldwin and Rona Epstein conclude from their recent research that we need to rethink when and how we punish mothers

The research, part funded by the Oakdale Trust, highlighted the detrimental effects that short custodial sentences have on families, and the harmful effect that the resulting separation can have on children. We collected questionnaire information on 17 mothers who had served between 2 – 34 weeks, some for first offences, all for nonviolent offences; and who between them had a total of 50 children.

Pre-existing vulnerabilities included depression (including severe post-partum depression), (12 of the 17 mothers suffered from depression), and previous attempts of suicide. Some were receiving help from various community services. Three were pregnant. Several had histories of self-harm, physical vulnerabilities included liver disease, epilepsy, diabetes and menopausal issues. Two were widowed. Substance misuse (drugs and alcohol) was also a common theme. One mother was a primary carer for her disabled husband. Several mothers mentioned issues around debt and poverty. The children too were vulnerable. Several had issues with anxiety, sometimes severe. One mother had a disabled child, another had a daughter who had self-harmed, another a daughter who had only recently been raped.

Three of the participants were pregnant on entering prison. Mandy reported ‘no difficulties’; she stated staff were ‘very good’, and that she asked for, and was given a chance to see a nurse immediately. She said: ‘actually all of the prison staff were very good to me’. For the remaining two, the outcomes were very different. Both Michelle and Polly miscarried in prison. Polly was four months pregnant when she entered prison: ‘I think it was the shock of going to prison that made me lose my baby. I had no history of miscarriage, there was no other reason’. ‘When I lost my baby, I was bleeding on my own in my cell for hours. I lost my baby on the way to the hospital, in handcuffs. I will never forgive them for that. There was no need for cuffs. I wasn’t exactly running away, was I?’

The care arrangements for the children when their mother entered prison varied: 29% (5) of the sibling groups had at least one child cared for by their father, and fathers already had custody of children in a further two cases. Grandmothers cared for most of the sibling groups (41%), aunts and family friends took over in some families. In 3 cases sibling groups were cared for by their older teenage sisters, two left education to take on this role.

Several of the sibling groups were split up, some between different fathers, some between fathers and other relatives.

The mothers reported intense anxiety about the care arrangements which persisted all the time they were in prison. It was clear that even though these women had spent only short periods in custody, the mothers in the study remained troubled by their experiences, describing challenges that had carried on for them long after their release. Clare, who served 50 days in prison for a council tax debt, reported that she had PTSD, and found herself ‘unable to do even the simplest of things, such as post a letter’. Several women were receiving counselling to help them deal with the effects of their short term in prison.

The mothers described both short and long-term effects on their children, who displayed an array of behaviours indicating distress and anger. Several mothers described younger ones as ‘clingy’ and ‘insecure’, and conversely older children as ‘more independent’, ‘distanced’ or ‘aloof’. The effects included bedwetting, nightmares and anxiety. Older children were described as ‘angry’ and ‘resentful’, less amenable to maternal discipline and ‘quietly judging’, ‘as though they were punishing me for leaving them’. Some children experienced bullying at school because of having a mother in prison. One sibling group were told to keep their mother’s whereabouts a secret to avoid stigma, for the whole of her five-month prison sentence.

Four mothers were evicted from their homes while in prison, another has ‘eviction pending’. One described this devastating consequence of a short sentence: ‘I lost my house and had to start again. I found it impossible because I couldn’t get a house because I was under 35 and my 18-month-old daughter wasn’t living with me. I hoped that someone would help me with that. But they didn’t’. Another 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, their children vulnerable to further disruption and homelessness.

Without exception, the mothers recounted some aspect of their experience of prison as ‘traumatic’, for many, prison only compounded the trauma they had experienced in their lives before prison. The report concludes with a number of recommendations for future research. It reiterates the need to revisit the recommendations of the Prison Reform Trust’s 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 found here: https://www.dora.dmu.ac.uk/handle/2086/14301

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