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The hidden victims of a ‘lock them up’ culture: Mothers & Prison, Introductory comment

2012 September 22

Lock them up and throw away the key. That is not just the right-wing populist attitude to crime and criminal justice. It also effectively sums up the attitude of our whole nation when it comes to the question of prison. The numbers of individuals locked away in British prisons has reached a record high, it is periodically announced, with a tedious regularity. The nation tuts, for a variety of reasons or political motives, and then turns away. Prison is an issue which we all, metaphorically, prefer to lock up and throw away the mental key.

There are two groups of people who suffer most out of the spotlight of national awareness. The number of women in our jails has rocketed. Over the past 15 years it has more than doubled. We are now sending more than 10,000 women to prison each year. Towards the end of the major five part series which The Independent begins today we shall explain why and offer some idea of what might be done to change that.

The cost of this huge surge is enormous in financial terms; the average bill for putting a woman behind bars is £56,415 a year. But the social cost is even greater. Taking mothers from their children causes such emotional, developmental and psychological damage that it is hugely accelerating the creation of the next generation of criminals. A child who has a parent in prison is three times more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviour and three times more likely to develop mental health problems. A staggering 65 per cent of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves.

Yet children are the innocent victims of the British criminal justice system. In any given year as many as 200,000 children have to cope with the varied and wide-ranging consequences of having a parent in prison – far more than are separated through divorce.  Of those the ones who suffer most are the 17,000 children a year for whom it is their mother who is put behind bars. Often the sentences are short, for the offences committed by women are generally far less serious than those of men; shoplifting, non-payment of fines, benefit fraud and offences surrounding drug addiction and sex work are the most common crimes. Most are inside for less than six months but the female prison population last week was more than double what it was in the 1990s.

Yet the disruptive impact of even a short sentence can be catastrophic for children who have committed no crime at all – and who have already suffered disproportionately because of the chaotic lives their drug and drink-dependent mothers often lead. They almost always end up moving house and school and must cope with stigma and trauma.

Today we go inside one of Britain’s closed women’s prisons and look at the advantages and shortcomings of the approach the prison service has developed to deal with the surge in numbers of women behind bars. We talk to some of the very few women who are allowed to keep their babies with them.

Later in the week we will lay bare shocking facts about what happens in the majority of cases where mothers and their children are separated.  We will consider the impact on the women themselves, in and out of jail. We will look at the lives of those outside who are left holding prisoners’ babies, bringing up their distressed children and disturbed teenagers – a burden which mainly falls on grandmothers and other female relatives. It is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers. We will turn a spotlight on the harrowing effect all this has on the children themselves. And to conclude we will examine alternatives to the current system and how workable they might be.

Whenever a mother is taken away from her child we unintentionally punish the child too. This is a form of child abuse which society can no longer ignore.

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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