‘Too long has it been assumed that the impact of imprisonment upon men, women, and most importantly, children, is the same’: Sophie Sternberg explains the social impact the incarceration of a mother has on her child.
Working in collaboration with the Howard League, this week’s articles will focus on the lives of women in prisons.
When we consider the impact of a prison sentence, rarely do our thoughts extend to children. We think of the loss of privacy, of freedom, we think of ‘men-in-stripy-t-shirts’, yowling between bars. But do we think of the children looking into this world behind bars, peering in, anxious to catch a glimpse of a mother, a brother, a father, a sister? I know I rarely do, and, as evidenced by research, neither does the State. In effect, children are left abandoned by the punitive methods of the state. This article will focus on the social impact the incarceration of a mother has on her child, and whether there are, or ought to be, alternative methods in dealing with this.
To clarify, I am not suggesting that punitive measures ought to be avoided for the sake of a child. A punishment is there to achieve justice, so that one might recognise the wrong’s of one’s actions and, to a certain extent, ensure that the perpetrator feels vilified.
However, ought there not to be a system in place to ensure that the wellbeing of the children affected by imprisonment remains secure? In 2009, it was estimated that 200,000 children were affected by the incarceration of their mothers. This is double that of children affected by divorce, yet the latter do not have to face the stigma of being a ‘jailbird’s’ child. Children of divorce are often met with looks of sympathy, but children of criminals are looked at with trepidation and wariness, the fear (and perhaps curiosity), that they will turn out like their parents.
This is aggravated when looked at in the context of gender roles; whilst imprisoned fathers can rely on the mothers to continue looking after the child, only 9 per cent of mothers can rely upon the same. This highlights the shockingly mismatched roles of the sexes in upbringing and suggests that there ought to be measures in place to ensure the welfare of the child after the mother has been jailed.
Statistics revealing the background of the women in prison are chilling. Over half have been victims of domestic abuse and 1 in 3 has been the victim of sexual abuse. The situation these women then find themselves in, vulnerable, alone, possibly fearful and resentful of men, indicates more a failing on the part of the Government than the moral culpability of the women. It is highly likely that they do not want men, particularly strangers such as in a foster home, looking after their children, yet lack of choice and possibility presents them with no other option. This only aggravates the anger and fear they already feel, and may cause them to rebel against the prison system.
As mothers are generally the primary care-givers, the family unit they help maintain is more likely to break down if a mother is imprisoned. She is likely to have to rely on extended family members, or, should they be unavailable, the State, to provide for the children. This is particularly damaging on the welfare of the child, as not only do they then have to contend with the loss of their mother, but also the psychological trauma of moving and adapting to new environments (75 per cent of children suffer from PTSD as a result).
The location of women’s jails also makes weekly visits a contentious issue. In 2014, only 4.6 per cent of the UK’s prison population were women, hence fewer women’s prisons. As a result, women are more likely to be imprisoned further away from their family; recent statistics show that they are on average 60 miles away, although in many cases it is likely to be further. This makes visits difficult, as many children are unable to visit due to financial constraints, or lack of accompaniment. Even when visits are possible, the trauma of seeing their mothers in such constrained environments often acts as a deterrent, whilst simultaneously further breaking down the parental role. The child, upon seeing their mother in a restrictive and prohibitive environment, will reject parental authority, and may resort to a reversal of power – an attitude of ‘if you want to carry on seeing me, you must do as I say.’ This makes the resumption of parental control more difficult upon release, as the mothers will find they have no control over their offspring, and this, in addition with the stigma of being a convict, can make normal life post-prison very challenging.
So where does this all lead us? Statistics highlight the inefficacy of the prison system, where the reoffending rate currently lies at 56 per cent. This in combination with the shocking effects it has on the children, the ‘invisible victims of crime’, begs the question as to whether alternative methods can be found. One such initiative was recently launched in the US. Drew House in the US is a more rehabilitative way of dealing with offending mothers. Women and their children live in apartments, whilst fulfilling their court mandates, yet crucially, the family unit remains intact. Relationships are not destroyed, and these women, who have suffered enough over a lifetime, are finally given the chance to prove that they are capable of family life. Not only that, but it has been found to be far more cost-effective – the cost of a mother and 2 children staying there is $34,000, as opposed to $129,000 for prison and foster care.
Who would ever have guessed that a softer treatment, prison with a human touch, could be effective? What could possibly stop our cash-strapped Government from introducing such regimes? Too long have women and children, so often overlooked, been left without a voice. Too long has it been assumed that the impact upon men, women, and most importantly, children, is the same. Too long have the children suffered in silence. It is time for them to be heard, and for society to wake up to crime’s forgotten victims.
Illustration by Kate Dickinson