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The Emotional Cost of Women in Prison

The pandemic is continuing to create challenges on mental wellbeing and relationships, amongst the many other difficulties that exist for those in prison and their loved ones. We must raise attention to the emotional cost of those women in prison, as well as the rippling effect that this has on those close contacts.

At the start of 2021, the government announced plans to create 500 more prison spaces for women. Coupled with this, the government revealed their investment in around £2 million to support community services that work with vulnerable women. Yet, the cost of these prison spaces is estimated to well exceed the funding offered to support community services, as a post by the Howard League for Penal Reform importantly highlighted.

This has led us to analyse some of the limited research on the emotional cost to women in prison, confirming why the creation of more prison spaces is not, and never will be, a success to prevent crime and reduce the number of women in custody.

So… why is this such a big issue?

‘Women in prison’ are such a varied demographic, experiencing an intersectionality of disadvantage that can influence their identity. One example that will be central to this piece is mothers in prison, who face unique difficulties when they become separated from their children. O’Reilly (2016) identifies that mothers need a feminism of their own, which she names Matricentric Feminism. This is due to the distinct problems that these women face socially, economically, politically, culturally, and psychologically, which are specific to their identity as a mother. Baldwin (2018) expands on this concept further in relation to women experiencing motherhood within the criminal justice system. She highlights that mothers often take on the pain and emotions of their children on top of their own emotions, which can be hard for many mothers to navigate when they are in prison, as well as continuing upon release. By continuing to send mothers to prison, the impact is not only on that woman but also on her children and family who are significantly affected by the system as well.

The impact on children of incarcerated mothers is of particular concern. Crest (2019) estimates that 312,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment each year, with the emotional impact of any parent in prison being significant to the child, including sadness and anger which can considerably impact mental health and wellbeing. Crest’s (2019) report further states that the imprisonment of a mother causes even more disruption than the imprisonment of fathers, being more detrimental to those children’s life outcomes. Considering that nearly half of the 90,000 women arrested each year face no further action because the majority are not serious criminals, the lifelong impact of imprisonment on those women and their children is wholly unnecessary.

Minson’s (2021) newly published research addresses the impact of continuous prison lockdowns on children with a parent in prison. She indicates that thousands of children in the UK have not seen their parent for a year, with video calls not beginning until 11 months after visits were stopped, which have been both limited and problematic for children. She also discovered that sadly, many children thought that their parent did not want to see them anymore or had stopped loving them, blaming themselves for the loss of contact. This has negatively impacted mother and child relationships, as well as physical and mental wellbeing for both; the lack of physical contact such as a simple hug between parent and child has hindered the development of relationships (Minson, 2021). These effects are not short term – the disruption caused will go on to affect relationships and resettlement after imprisonment.

The importance of family ties for those in prison has not been understated, referred to by Lord Farmer as ‘a golden thread’. We believe this is the single, most important thread to alleviating the impact of imprisonment to those women experiencing its exceedingly high emotional cost.

Our vision remains paramount – we must work towards a world without punishment because this emotional cost affects the wider community through an adverse impact on those children with a mother in prison; children of prisoners are three times more likely to engage in anti-social or offending behaviour than those children who do not have a parent in prison (MoJ & DCSF, 2007).

We urge you to join us in signing the Howard League’s campaign to oppose the building of more prison places for women. Click here to sign.

 

By Niki Pavitt

 

 

Baldwin, L. (2018) Motherhood Disrupted: Reflections of Post Prison Mothers.
Crest (2019) Executive Summary: Children of Prisoners – Fixing a broken system.
Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (2007) Children of Offenders Review.
Minson, S. (2021) The impact of COVID-19 prison lockdowns on children with a parent in prison: findings from a UK study April 2020-June 2020.

O’Reilly, A. (2016) Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism and Practice.

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