Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Women

Literature suggests that losing a mother to prison will generally have far more of an impact, and trigger a greater response from services, as the mother is often the main carer (97). The number of women being sent to prison has increased dramatically over the past decade (98).

“The number of women in prison has more than doubled over the past decade. On 24 March 2006, the women’s prison population stood at 4,392. Ten years ago in 1995, the average female prison population was 1,998. Five years ago it stood at 3,355. In 2003, 13,000 women were received into prison. Home Office research has found that 66 per cent of women prisoners are mothers, and each year it is estimated that more than 17,700 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment.” (99)

The female prison estate is far smaller than its male equivalent. The implication is that mothers will often be even further from home, making face-to-face contact even harder. For children it can mean a long and complicated journey, an early start, a day away from school, let alone the issue of who is left to look after them. It may be that grandparents and other relatives are able to step in, or it may be that the local authority is informed and a child is assessed as a child in need. This can lead to fostering, and in some cases, adoption.

“As we know, there is a strong link between local authority care and later imprisonment, so the question of who provides support to those without family ties is an important one. Encouraging prisoners' families to play a role in resettlement is clearly important for some inmates.” (100)

In a recent study into a sample of women in HMP Styal, Hamilton and Fitzpatrick (86) undertook a needs assessment of the issues faced by women with mental health problems who were returning to Greater Manchester. It examined cycles of abuse and offending as well as “the challenges of delivering services to women with multiple needs, and the need to outline more effective interventions to support them in the community and reduce rates of re-offending”. One of the areas they explored was the women’s family and support networks, and they found the following:

The authors asked the women what they felt would most be of benefit to them both before and after release, and they identified five main areas. The first and perhaps most significant is a call for coordinating support that is sustainable and needs-led, rather than crisis-driven.

Poehlmann also carried out a study of 54 children in the United States whose mothers were in prison (15). She found that children’s reaction to the separation included sadness, worry, confusion, anger, loneliness, and in some cases, developmental problems. The conclusion was that emphasis should be placed upon the need for support in families, and to promote stable and continuous placements for children. This finding was supported in research by Adalist-Estrin, who called upon extended family and community professionals to play a more significant role in the whole process (101). She is particularly concerned about older children who have to think about their own futures and the prospects they have once they have left school. Involving their parents in prison, by conference call if necessary, is essential for the child.

In the United States, a literature review identified that the experiences of children of imprisoned mothers who need community and support services are often overlooked (80). The authors refer to research done by Joseph Kampfner in 1995, who undertook a small-scale study of 36 children and found that 75 per cent displayed symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Punishment is compounded for many women inmates when they are separated from children… .The secondary costs of imprisonment to children have been acknowledged but are largely incalculable” (102).

The number of visits to prisons is ever-decreasing (96), and yet most mothers will be reunited with children upon release (103). Consequently, there needs to be far more time and support put into preparation for release, not just for the prisoner but for the family awaiting their return. McLean and others ask whether this period is a moment of crisis or a window of opportunity (104), and it is clear that if certain factors are not addressed, such as mental health, housing, finance and substance misuse, it will inevitably be the former (see also Hamilton and Fitzpatrick above).

Dalley researches women imprisoned in Montana, USA. She criticizes “gender-neutral” sentencing policies, particularly given her findings of women with deep-rooted intergenerational issues, and childhood trauma. This is further exacerbated by the distance women are placed from their children, making sustaining of the relationship with their children that much harder. She goes on to explore the need for a multi-agency approach to address the layers of issues and coordinate a response, and she calls for government to:

“Reallocate funding to improve the justice, social welfare and educational systems as they relate to imprisoned women and their children”.

Fundamental to this is the need for a transitional post-release programme, to enable women to succeed in meeting the expectations placed upon them in relation to housing, employment and parenting with adequate and targeted support.

In 2002 The Social Exclusion Unit produced a report entitled ‘Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners’. They reported that 12 per cent of children with a mother in prison were in care, with foster parents or had been adopted; this compared to two per cent of the children of male prisoners. Overall, only five per cent of women prisoners’ children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced (105).

Housing is also an enormous issue upon release. It goes hand in hand with poverty and unemployment for many prisoners, and can inevitably have an impact on mental health. When children are also involved and the aim is to re-build some sort of family life, the pressures are that much greater, and require considerably more attention before a parent has been released. O’Brien carried out in-depth interviews with 18 female ex-inmates in the United States, and identified five categories that were an indicator to successful re-entry into the community. These are finding shelter; obtaining employment or legal income; reconstructing connections with others; developing community membership; and identifying confidence (106).