Every year, the mothers of an estimated 17,000 children in England and Wales are imprisoned, with far-reaching consequences. Of these children, 95 per cent have to leave their family homes, while 25 per cent of children with any parent in prison have an increased risk of mental health problems. The separation of families impacts the adults, too: prisoners who receive family visits are said to be 39 per cent less likely to reoffend than those who do. So could plans to keep families together, even when parents are sent to prison, improve all their chances?
In September 2023, South Derbyshire district council approved plans for the development of 50 new apartments at HMP Foston Hall, a women’s prison, which would allow inmates to have their children stay overnight. The initiative, which is in its early stages and has no date for completion, is nonetheless a sign that some action is being taken to reduce the “catastrophic” impact of maternal imprisonment identified in the Corston review of 2007 and thrust under the spotlight in October in season two of BBC’s Time. (Orla, played by Jodie Whittaker, loses her three children, her home and her job following a six-month prison sentence for fiddling the electrics.)
The apartments are “a step in the right direction,” says Emily Evison, policy and programme officer at Prison Reform Trust (PRT), as they allow for more parents and children to spend more time together than the “short, standardised visits” currently offered at prisons, and which children have to travel an average of more than 60 miles to attend. However, she says, such measures don’t amount to the systemic change that’s needed to really tackle the ripple effect of maternal imprisonment.
Voicing a similar sentiment, Jess Southgate, deputy chief executive at charity Agenda Alliance (AA), refers to the apartments as a “sticking plaster” approach to a complex problem. “The idea in principle isn’t a bad one,” says Southgate. “We want to support women maintaining ties with their children—but doing that within the existing prison estate isn’t the best use of resource.” A far better use of time and money, she says, would be working to reduce the number of women being sent into custody—a key aim of the 2018 Female Offender Strategy, which the government “has fallen far short on,” she says. Instead £200m has been invested in creating 500 new prison places. In October, the Lord Chancellor’s announcement that the government will legislate for a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months as a way to reduce re-offending is more positive—more than half of women are imprisoned for less than six months.
Secondly, adds Southgate, services such as Agenda Alliance, which advocates for women whose needs are not being met by public services, have for years been arguing that rehabilitation for female offenders is most effective when implemented through supportive community models, rather than in prisons, where long waiting lists mean that services are difficult to access and may not be equipped to help women with varied and complex needs. “There are many women’s centres around the country that have [the right] skills to work closely with social services and mental health and housing to put support around a woman and her family,” she says. Holistic, wraparound, sustainable support that would far outweigh “a sleepover once in a while.”
Lilly Lewis-Bell, an Agenda Alliance trustee who was imprisoned for four years and lost her children to the care system, agrees that it would have taken much more than an overnight stay in prison to help her with the “long and painful” journey she and her children experienced. “People might not understand it, but you can’t just go back to living together straight away,” she says. “What mums really need are community-based alternatives to custody,” says Lewis-Bell, “so those family ties aren’t broken at all.” Lewis-Bell has worked as an advisor to one such initiative, Hope Street, a new residential scheme in Hampshire that enables women in the justice system to live with their children while receiving support that’s appropriate to their experiences and trauma.
Experts from Children Heard and Seen (CHAS), a parental imprisonment charity based in Oxfordshire, also argue that policies relating to prisoners and their families too often focus only on the needs of the parent. When considering how to maintain a mother-and-child-bond after imprisonment, says operational manager James Ottley, helping a child “get used to having their mother back in their lives” is key. The most appropriate way to do this would be to allow them to have visits from their mother, he advises, in a comfortable, familiar, home setting. The HMP Foston Hall apartments will be in an open unit, meaning some inmates will be allowed to leave the premises for reasons such as attending work, on a “release on temporary licence”. Such a licence should be used to enable visits to children also, says Ottley. Instead, children of prisoners will be required to travel miles to stay overnight in a facility adjacent to a prison, where a welcoming, child-friendly atmosphere will be difficult to create.
Southgate agrees that the apartments are “a prison in all but name”, an environment that can “lead to really profound levels of distress for the children.” And while there are prisons that have well-run facilities—Southgate cites the mother and baby unit at HMP Askham Grange as a more positive example— inmates at HMP Foston Hall are currently “patently unsafe.” (The prison received the lowest possible rating of “poor” for safety in 2021). “Which begs the question,” says Southgate, “is this a prison that can meet the needs of mothers and their children?”
Corrections: In the final paragraph, the opinions were originally attributed to Armstrong, but were reported to the writer by Southgate.