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Children in peril as women are jailed in record numbers: Mothers & Prison, introduction

2012 September 22
by Paul Vallely

The number of women in British prisons has more than doubled over the past 15 years. Some 10,181 women were put behind bars last year. Britain now has one of the highest rates of female imprisonment in the European Union.

Today at least 17,240 children are separated from their mother because she is in jail. Some 80 of the youngest of those children are accommodated with their mums behind bars in eight prison Mother and Baby Units. The remaining 17,160 suffer as the innocent victims of Britain’s criminal justice system.

Separation by imprisonment, research suggests, causes long-term emotional, social, material and psychological damage to children. It begins with damage to the mother-baby bonds which are essential to a child’s ability to form normal relationships throughout its life. And it continues through to teenage years. One study shows that damage can still be measured at the age of 48.

An astonishing 95 per cent of children whose mothers are in jail have to move out of the family home. Many must move schools. They live in homes with lower incomes than before. They suffer shame and stigma, and are teased and bullied at school. They truant more than other children and achieve less in education.

Children with a parent in prison are three times more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour than their peers. Their chances of suffering mental health problems also increase threefold.

All this is storing up huge problems for the future. Nearly two thirds of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves.

On the last official figures there are around 200,000 children with a mother or father in prison – more than three times the number of children in state care. More children are now separated from a parent by imprisonment than by divorce. Children do worse when it is their mother rather than their father in jail.

“I know why I am in here,” a woman inside Eastwood Park prison told us. “But my children didn’t do anything wrong. Why should they be punished?”

Family breakdown is increased by prison. Some 45 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families. Women prisoners are held, on average, 55 miles from home. Some are more than 100 miles from their children. Visiting times often clash with school hours. When they leave prison a third of women prisoners find they have lost their homes. That reduces their chance of finding a job and of rebuilding shattered family ties.

Yet two thirds of the 10,181 women sentenced to prison in 2011 served sentences of six months or significantly less. Over a third were jailed for theft or handling stolen goods or other low level ‘nuisance’ offending. A quarter had no previous convictions.

More than half of women entering custody do so on remand. They spend on average six weeks in prison and 60 per cent of them do not then go on to receive a custodial sentence. Yet severe disruption has been done to the lives of their children.

“A significant number of women in prison aren’t a risk to the public,” says Baroness Jean Corston, who wrote a seminal report on women in British prisons in 2007. The average cost of keeping a woman in jail is £56,415 a year. Punishment in the community costs less than a quarter of that.

Meantime their children are effectively being trained up to become the next generation of prisoners. “The effects on children of having their mother imprisoned,” Baroness Corston says, are “often nothing short of catastrophic”.

Additional reporting by Sarah Cassidy

Introduction: Children in peril as women are jailed in record numbers


Introductory comment: The hidden victims of a ‘lock them up’ culture


Part 1:  Babies behind bars


Part 2:  The 17,000 children separated from their Mums


Part 3: The grandmothers left holding the baby and bringing up the children


Part 4: The devastating hidden toll on children  


Part 5: More effective alternatives to custody


Part 6: The changes that are needed


Government response to Mothers & Prison series


Final comment: We risk creating the felons of the future

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