Mothers in prison still facing hardship

Researchers from Hallam Centre for Community Justice (HCCJ) at Sheffield Hallam have highlighted how mothers and babies in prison can often benefit from residing in a supportive Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) in a new report published in collaboration with Action For Prisoners’ and Offenders’ Families.

The report says mothers in prison face high levels of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and domestic abuse. 

Women whose babies have been taken into statutory care during a prison sentence are particularly vulnerable and are often unable to access appropriate support.    

The report, Enhancing Care for Childbearing Women And Their Babies In Prison, also outlines some of the problems faced by mothers and stresses the need for “through the gate” support as the women prepare for release.

The Right Honourable Baroness Corston, who published the influential review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system in 2007 says in this report: “MBUs, and how they fit into the treatment of women prisoners, have been the subject of debate in CJS circles for decades, but there has been no serious analysis or overview for many years.

“This is not a straightforward subject to tackle and this report does an excellent job of putting MBUs and mothers in prison firmly back on the agenda”.

Lead author Caroline O’ Keeffe, from HCCJ, said: “Nearly 10 years on from Baroness Corston’s report we are still failing to address many of the issues facing women in prison and their families.

“The benefits of prison MBUs need to be actively promoted to external staff, to mothers and also to non-MBU prison staff while mothers in prison need programmes which address self-esteem and healthy relationships.

“Crucially, release from prison needs to be viewed as a process not as an event. The sentence planning of women prisoners who are also mothers needs to include  support on release and a ‘whole family’ approach where appropriate.”

Nearly 10 years on from Baroness Corston’s report we are still failing to address many of the issues facing women in prison and their families.

The report comes amid uncertainty in the criminal justice system as a result of the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms.

With the closure of some MBUs and other MBUs under threat, the future for mothers and babies in prison is uncertain and the options for many women in prison, particularly those serving longer sentences, to keep their families together remain extremely limited. 

The report highlights some of the challenges and also opportunities for caring for mothers in prison and their babies, within the context of these changes.

Anastasia de Waal, Chair of Family Lives, which runs APOF, said: “It is clear there are no easy answers or ‘quick fixes’ in caring for mothers in prison and their babies.  The government should urgently examine why the very limited number of Mother and Baby Units, a diminishing but potentially vital and valuable resource in prisons, aren’t being fully utilised.

“Hopefully the report can create the opportunity for reflection and will flag up the potential for positive change in both policy and practice. It is vital that all training provision around childbearing women and their babies and indeed women offenders more generally  seeks to heighten awareness of the link between women’s often dual role as victim and offenders.” 

Notes for editors:

1. Hallam Centre for Community Justice will host a conference,Improving the Lives of Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System on Tuesday 8 March. For more details, contact HCCJ at [email protected]

For press information: Laurie Harvey in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 2621