Prison: A Punishment for Mothers and Children Alike

Kaitlin Dryburgh: 16th June 2023

This week the news broke that a women in England was found guilty under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act to have administered an abortion unlawfully. The 44 year-old was given a 28 month sentence, some of which will be spent on license. This made headlines all over the world. From the shock that a Victorian law created by men still governs over women today, others deemed it wholly unfair that the women in question received such a lengthy prison sentence when in the eyes of the public many who have committed more brutal crimes and received shorter custodial sentences. Not to mention there are thousands calling for the decriminalisation of abortions. Although there is a lot to debate about this story there is one element that stuck out for me that I don’t believe many are talking about. And that’s the fact that a mother of three (with one of those children apparently having special needs) was locked away. So I ask, is that really the best decision? Were the options weighed up against the negative outcomes?

The Judge, Mr Justice Edward Pepperal believed that had she not pled guilty so late on he perhaps would have considered a non-custodial sentence. So it seems that she is neither being locked up as she poses a threat to the public, nor does she need to be rehabilitated. So does her crime even really demand time locked up? It altogether seems like it’s punishment for punishment’s sake. It is understandable that judges have to take into account early guilty pleads, so that there is an incentive for doing so, yet in the case the use of prison seems pointless.  

Yet it’s not just her that’s being punished, it’s her three children that she was caring for before the sentencing. Locking up mothers who are not a danger to society and who were currently caring for their children is strongly discouraged by many experts and organisations, including the United Nations. Not to mention it’s not exactly news that short prison sentences do more damage than good for everyone involved, and on the whole there is no opportunity for true rehabilitation, nor does it work as a deterrent.

It’s not known exactly how many children in the UK are separated from their mothers, as that data isn’t actively collected but it’s estimated that every year up and down the UK there are 17,000 children separated from their mothers because of prison. Although the number of women in prison makes up a very small percentage of the overall prison population, roughly 65% of all women in prison are mothers and the majority of their children are under the age of 18. It’s also important to know that at least a third of those mothers are lone parents outside of prison, and for most of them prison is the first time they will be separated from their children for a prolonged period of time.

A parent, most especially a mother being incarcerated wreaks havoc on the family unit and without doubt creates long-lasting effects on children. The effects have been studied widely and can range from simple behaviour issues, anti-social issues, substance abuse, attachment issues, internalised shame, anxiety and many more. The knock-on effects from a child experiencing separation due to maternal imprisonment can happen long after the mother is free, even decades after. This stems from the many realities of having a parent in prison, lack of supervision, moving home (only a small minority of children are able to stay in their own home after there mum has been imprisoned) and schools, economic hardship, stigma from peers and the negative impact of missing any previous bonds with the parent. However, each time a child is separated from a mother who was caring for her children, the outcomes are aways unknown.

If the emotional cost isn’t enough to question why we persist in separating mothers from their children when she poses no risk to the wider public, there is always the financial cost to consider. A 2021 report by the justice research organisation Crest Advisory estimates that the cost of locking a mother up and then supporting her kids is estimated at £265,000 per year. Over a quarter of a million pounds is a phenomenal amount of money, yet it isn’t being spent to enhance the lives of the children, the money is being used to keep people plodding through life and minimise the hurt that prison is causing to their family unit, it’s being thrown at children in the hope they’ll manage to keep their heads above the water. Just think of all the good that money could do if the family wasn’t forcibly separated from their mum.

While the female prison population in Scotland continues to be low, the plight of a women in  prison is one that is perhaps more vulnerable than that of the male population. Of course there are trends through-out the whole of the prison population, for example those who grew-up or had experience with the care service are over represented, there is a low reading age and there are a high proportion of inmates who have grown up in relative or absolute poverty. Yet the female prison population consists of a high number of women who have been abused, they most likely are in debt, they are more likely to self-harm when compared to males, and two thirds suffer from mental health disorders, yet most won’t be violent or a risk.

Approximately 60% of the Scottish female prison population with children are involved in the care of their children when they’re not in prison, so not every women in prison represents a family ripped-apart by prison. However, even those who do care for their children out with prison report that getting their family and children to visit can be difficult due to the cost of visiting, the distance and general disturbance it can cause the children. It seems that it doesn’t matter how many family visiting suites are built or opportunities for female prisoners to have their children stay overnight because in the end the damage being caused is too significant to be patched up by these small gestures. There are better solutions. Solutions that cause less suffering and less prolonged contact with social welfare services.

The after effects don’t stop their either. Having a criminal record can be devasting for the prospect of finding employment and often women find it harder than men to find employment after coming out of prison. Additionally if a mother is caring for children alone the limited options may force her to consider dangerous options such as returning to a previous abusive partner.

So why didn’t Justice Edward Pepperal take into account that the women at the centre of this media storm had three children in her care? It seems that this should have been of more importance than whether or not she entered an early guilty plea.

Well, upon reflection it should have been! Already there are international and European conventions in place that should allow for children to be considered when a mother or father is facing sentencing, yet studies have concluded that rarely is that the reality for families facing prison. UK based research found that it’s not unheard of that the child isn’t even mentioned or seriously considered during the sentencing process.

Yet this directly contradicts articles within both the The United Nations Convention on the rights of the child (CRC) 1989 and The European Convention on Human Rights. For example Article three of the UN’s convention on the rights of the child states;

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

While the European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that the best interests of the child must be the determining factor when forcibly separating a child from a parent. However, seldom do these articles actually get applied to the sentencing process for mothers or judges take them seriously.

Yes we can’t allow for non-violent women to receive less prison time solely based on the fact that they are women, this would be gender discrimination. So I believe we should evaluate the need for any non-violent offender to be placed in prison. We may not all be women, or in fact mothers, but at some point in our lives we have all be a child, and it should be the right of every child to receive an equal start in life and that in most cases can’t happen if we decide to forcibly remove them from their mother’s care while they are in prison. It damages the child too much, it can perpetuate the poor quality of life the women may already be experiencing and at nothing else it costs the public an obscene amount for very little return or protection. There is simply no need for it.

2 thoughts on “Prison: A Punishment for Mothers and Children Alike”

  1. Two issues arise from this case. Firstly, is a prison sentence appropriate where a person deliberately lies to gain medication to end the life of the perfectly viable entity in her womb just weeks before its birth? Some believe in the right to abort a perfectly viable, healthy foetus, up to the very last minute before its birth despite the fact that the law generally seeks to protect the lives of the pre-born after they have reached the point of viability. The second issue is whether women who are mothers should be less likely to get jail time than women who are not mothers, or than men who are fathers.

  2. Note the government policy on not supporting the third child of some one on social security. Logically this means the government expect the parents to starve the child to death. Why is this accepted when a so called late abortion is punished.

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