Around the world, thousands of children are separated from their mother – often the primary caregiver – when she is sent to prison. In the fifth blog of our series marking the tenth anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules, Miranda Rathmell, a Prison Officer at HMP Downview in the UK, looks at the complex and far-reaching effects of imprisonment of mothers and criminal justice responses to these women.
More than 740,000 women and girls are held in penal institutions across the world, making up approximately 6.9% of the prison population worldwide. Globally, we do not know how many of these women are mothers but where national figures are available it suggests that the majority of women in prison are affected by mother and child separation:
- In Thailand, 82% of women in prison are mothers
- In the UK, 66% of women in prison are mothers
- In the Russian Federation, 80% of convicted women are mothers
- In Brazil’s largest prison, 87% of women in prison are mothers
- In the United States, 80% of women in prison are mothers.
Despite the adoption of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non- custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) over ten years ago, states across the world have largely failed to implement them. The concerning global trend which has seen a dramatic increase of more than 50% of women in prison in the last 20 years (to put into context, the male population has increased by around 20%) raises not only important issues about the effects of forced separation on women and their children, but also about why the implementation of the Bangkok Rulesis intermittent. Considering that women are often the primary care giver to children prior to their imprisonment, the mother and child relationship is fundamental to a mother’s well-being whilst in prison and an immense influence on rehabilitation during and after her release.
I held many in-depth interviews with mothers in prison as part of my MSc thesis research at the prison in which I work in the South of England. Their stories were honest and heartfelt. The raw pain and guilt they felt at being separated from their children were the overwhelming messages I heard. Often this guilt and shame manifested itself in different ways, whether by virtue of their involvement in criminal activity, coming from the sense of having failed their maternal duties, or at the impact their imprisonment will have on their children, missing watching their children grow up, and feeling that they have not been able to, for whatever reason, deliver a conventional upbringing for their children. Research shows that women in prison are likely to be victims as well as offenders, and my work has exposed me to many of the complex reasons why women break the law and end up in prison, sometimes repeatedly.
Prison for mothers threatens to damage so much more than the individuals that are deprived of their liberty and these effects are felt long after their sentence has ended.
Worldwide it has been argued that ‘prison has been designed by men, for men’ and women’s special needs are rarely taken into consideration, let alone women who are mothers and so have additional unique and complex needs. In many countries around the world, it is often the case that when fathers receive custodial sentences the mother continues to care for the children. When mothers receive custodial sentences, however, the family is often broken up and children are placed with other members of the family or into the care of the state. It is not surprising that it has been argued that female imprisonment does more harm than good to the women themselves, the children of mothers imprisoned, the wider family, the community and society as a whole. Prison for mothers threatens to damage so much more than the individuals that are deprived of their liberty and these effects are felt long after their sentence has ended.
The main international instrument which takes into account this growing global issue of mother and child separation through the imprisonment of women is the Bangkok Rules which complemented the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Rule 64 of the Bangkok Rules states “Non-custodial sentences for pregnant women and women with dependent children shall be preferred where possible and appropriate”. The adoption of the Bangkok Rules by the United Nations General Assembly was momentous in addressing the struggles and complex needs of women in prison. Rule 43 of the Bangkok Rules states “Prison authorities shall encourage and, where possible, also facilitate visits to women prisoners as an important prerequisite to ensuring their mental well-being and social reintegration”. However, the many challenges when it comes to visitation have been documented below.
The reality of visitation
Research indicates that visits a mother receives from her child throughout her sentence have positive effects: they can reduce trauma caused by the separation, have a direct link to a mother’s mental health, help to maintain the mother-and-child bond, and provide the mother with the motivation to keep going and ultimately improve her reintegration chances upon her release. However, in reality, prison visits do not come without their challenges.
Visitation can be hard logistically for families and children due to the geographical location of women’s prisons. Since women are a minority group in the prison population throughout the world, women are placed further from home compared to their male counterparts and so journey time and costs of visits increase. In some countries, after women have received their sentence, prison transit can involve long journeys over long periods of time and even involve stopovers in transit prisons along the way.
In addition, although there is minimal awareness on the subject, it has been documented in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that there is sometimes a requirement for visitors to make a financial contribution to the authorities to be permitted their visit. This condition of visitation would no doubt be harder hitting on women than men due to the already greater costs incurred for families to travel to women’s prisons due to their location. The damage this causes to the children of mothers in prison, the maintenance of the bond between mother and child, and to the mother’s successful rehabilitation could be considerable. Regardless of the impact though, if these accusations of financial contributions are true, this is in direct violation of the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules – visits are a right, not a privilege and so should not be dependent on financial contributions to the authorities.
A focus of the Bangkok Rules is to consider the alternatives to imprisonment and ‘give priority to applying non-custodial measures to women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system’. If a mother is awarded a non-custodial alternative such as community service, a fine, a probation order or a conditional or absolute discharge these issues would be avoided:
- Pre-existing mental health issues would not be aggravated by the prison environment. New mental health issues that prison can cause such as loneliness, depression or anxiety would not arise.
- Mothers could continue living with their children. This would not only create stability for their children but also avoid any issues that a mother’s imprisonment could cause for children such as: attachment disorders, lower educational achievement, increased chance of themselves going to prison later in life and behavioural/ learning issues.
- A mother and child’s bond would not be threatened. This bond has been acknowledged globally to be an immense support for both the child and the mother.
- There would be no issues relating to housing after a mother’s release from prison as she could continue living in her original residence.
- Feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem due to the stigma attached to imprisonment of a mother would not manifest.
In the limited cases where a custodial sentence is deemed to be necessary, then there needs to be more data gathered on the parental status of women in prison. Rule 3 of the Bangkok Rules states “The number and personal details of the children of a woman being admitted to prison shall be recorded at the time of admission”. Although an approximate percentage has been calculated of how many women in prison have children in different countries, knowing the exact number would prove beneficial. Gathering data on the number of children she has, the ages of the children and their living situation whilst she is in prison will increase knowledge on this vulnerable social group and would help inform policy responses to better cater to the needs of both women and children. These questions could be incorporated into the initial interview which is undertaken when an individual is taken into custody.
Prioritising non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment for mothers, who have so often been victims themselves throughout their lives, would not only prevent the breakup of families but improve women’s rehabilitation and reduce the risk of an inter-generational cycle of offending.