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Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment


The Maternal Imprisonment project examined the experience of mothers in the prison system and the wider impacts and costs of maternal imprisonment on women prisoners, their children and society as a whole.


Published in 2019 as part of the Government’s Female Offender Strategy, the Farmer Review emphasised the relationship between parental imprisonment, reoffending and intergenerational crime.[1] The trauma endured by both imprisoned mothers and their children is well-documented, with the latter experiencing anxiety, stigma and ‘confounding grief’ - which is expressed in angry and aggressive behaviours.[2] Yet, too often, a child’s right to respect for family life is not a central concern when sentencing their primary carer - usually a mother. This oversight creates the potential for more complex and costly problems down the line.

“...if you were to stand my mum up in that box with me and my brother, and someone turned around and said, “Do you sentence these three?”, would the judge look at it differently?” [3]

Crest estimates that 17,000 children in England and Wales are affected by maternal imprisonment. However, there remains a lack of reliable data on the number of mothers in prison and the number of children with mothers in prison. In the absence of collated data, it is impossible to fully comprehend the scale and nuance of the issue, and therefore make informed policy recommendations. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue and highlighted cracks in the system. The government’s blanket ban on prison visits has meant that for many children of prisoners, contact with their mother is only possible via telephone. Recognising this, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has recommended the temporary release from prison of every low-risk mother of dependent children. [4] The committee also called for the immediate collection and publication of data on the number of children affected by maternal imprisonment, deeming the absence of an action plan for data collection “both disappointing and concerning”.

Crest’s research seeks to influence government policy at this critical juncture by developing the evidence base around the true extent of the wider social harm and economic costs of maternal imprisonment. Using a combination of time series analysis, case studies, and interviews with mothers in the prison system we plan to plug existing data gaps and produce a compelling case for reform. 

What did we look at?  

The project was completed in three phases:

  • The first phase will engaged the major national stakeholders in our research, creating space for our findings and recommendations. This phase allowed us to identify gaps in the existing data and literature and develop hypotheses to test.

  • In the second phase we conducted deep dives in Hampshire and two or more London boroughs, engaging with PCCs and their local authority partners within their police force area. We conducted interviews with mothers who have been imprisoned and local practitioners across law enforcement, children’s services and third sector organisations. Qualitative data was built upon through time series analysis of a cohort of children entering the care system due to maternal imprisonment, and case studies of young people who have entered the youth offending system following the imprisonment of their mother.

  • The third phase took learning from phases 1 and 2 to influence national policy through a rolling dissemination plan. This phase will include polling with YouGov to assess public support for a new approach to mothers in the criminal justice system. 



1. Lord Farmer. (2019). The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders' Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime.

2. Minson, S. (2017). Briefing Paper: The Impact of Maternal Imprisonment upon a Child's Wellbeing and Their Relationship with Their Mother: Findings from 'Who Cares? Analysing the Place of Children in Maternal Sentencing Decisions in England and Wales'. Oxford: University of Oxford.

3. Q6 [Georgia]. Joint Committee on Human Rights. Oral Evidence 13.02.2019: The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison.

4. Joint Committee on Human Rights. (2020) Human Rights and the Government’s response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison.

Project publications

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