“My little sister, she’s ... really, really close to my mum and its her that’s finding it really difficult now, as well as me, with my mum being here, ‘cos she’s never been parted from my mum since she was a baby ... she finds it very difficult when she goes to school, ‘cos my mum used to always take her to school and everybody keeps asking her where her mum is ... and we’ve got to lie to my little sister ‘cos we don’t want her knowing where her mum is and why.”
That’s Michelle, whose mother was being held in HMP Holloway on remand.
Forcibly separating children from their primary carer, particularly their mother, can cause severe distress and leave permanent emotional scars. The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that more than 17,240 children under 18 years in England and Wales were forcibly separated from their mother in 2010. In the 1990s, the Howard League brought the issue of prisoners’ children to public attention; it was the first time that the children themselves had been asked what they thought about having their mother in prison.
Now, nearly twenty years later, the Howard League is revisiting this research. Sixteen-year-old Michelle was one of our original interviewees. Women’s imprisonment rates have remained at around 5 per cent of the overall prison population; a burgeoning number given that the current prison population is over 85,500. Likewise the fact that still more than half the women entering prison do so on remand, and of that number 60 per cent do not receive a custodial sentence or are found not guilty.
This is only part of the story, as each year many people are received into prison custody. Throughout 2010, 13,061 women were received into prison, of whom 6,996 women were on remand. The prison service does not publish or systematically collect figures on prisoner dependants, however surveys of women prisoners have consistently shown that approximately half of them have dependent children under 18 years.
The Howard League believes that women conceal the number of children they are responsible for, for fear of the consequences for their children and so the true number of children with a mother in prison may be far higher. Only five per cent of female prisoners’ children remain in the family home once their mother has been imprisoned.
Prisoners only receive infrequent visits, varying according to whether they are on remand or sentenced and their status on the incentive and earned privilege scheme. The timings of these visits further exacerbate the problem. Despite being described by the prisons inspectorate as being ‘much needed and much appreciated’, evening and weekend visits remain rare with mainly morning or afternoon slots when most people are either at school or at work. Not only are the timings inconvenient but it has been reported that there is recurrent severe delays to visits of up to forty-five minutes.
Women’s prisons can be a considerable distance from prisoners’ home areas. On average, one in five women are placed more than 100 miles from home. This creates problems for carers travelling with children to visit their mother and is just one reason why around half of mothers in prison do not receive visits from their children throughout their sentence.
The current economic climate means that budgets are being pared back. The Chief Inspector of Prisons (Annual Report 2008/2009) noted that “...we have learnt with concern that family days in some prisons (including women’s prisons) may be among the victims of the budget cuts.” The Assisted Prison Visit Scheme which helps pay for low-income families to visit prisoners may be another casualty from the cuts (Assisted Prison Visit Survey Report, 2010).
The links between the imprisonment of a parent and the life chances of a child are well documented and over the years there have been many initiatives to mitigate the damaging effect. But these do not work. The real answer is to take women out of the very establishments that will hinder their and their children’s life chances. Women should not be in prison in the first instance; those convicted of violent offences should be held in local secure units instead. The best way to reduce women's offending is in the community, by improving mental health services and tackling drug abuse.
Note: Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, is presenting the report’s findings today to United Nations' Committee on the Rights of the Child Day of General Discussion on prisoners’ children.