Esther Sample, Head of Policy, Research and Influencing at One Small Thing
Thursday 28 September 2021
As part of Crest's research into the impact of maternal imprisonment on mothers, their children, and society as a whole, we polled 2,500 members of the public to explore their attitudes towards sending mothers to prison. In this blog, Esther Sample, Head of Policy, Research and Influencing at One Small Thing, shares her analysis of the poll's findings.
The appalling and harrowing case of the death of a baby at HMP Bronzefield in September 2019 has sparked a national conversation about whether it is ever right to send pregnant women to prison. Campaigners We Level Up, Birth Companions, and Women in Prison are calling for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has published a new policy framework on Pregnancy, Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) and maternal separation, which aims to improve outcomes for pregnant women and mothers of children under the age of 2 in prison. The government also recently announced plans to build 500 new prison places for women, which it says will improve conditions in the female estate. The move has been criticised by many working in the field for contradicting the government’s own Female Offender Strategy which seeks to reduce women’s imprisonment.
There is an assumption that to win over the public, politicians need to be ‘tough on crime’ and strengthen prison provision.
However, Crest’s recent polling found that the majority of the general public (56%) agree that the funding for 500 new women’s prison places should instead be used to fund women’s support services, such as women’s centres. Similarly, less than 1 in 5 people (18%) disagreed with the statement: "The government should be reducing, not increasing the number of women in prison".
Clearly, this is one area where it seems that most of the public do not in fact believe that we should be getting ‘tougher’.
Women were significantly more likely to support reducing women’s imprisonment than men, but still only a quarter of men (24%) disagreed with the goal of reducing the number of women in prison. Differences in opinion were not just between men and women; only 1 in 10 people (11%) under 35 years old disagreed with the goal compared to 30% of those over 65.
The fact that 64% of 16-24 year olds (and a majority across all age groups) agreed that 'The funding should be used to improve support services instead' perhaps represents a turning of the tides in attitudes towards prison which should be heeded by those in power.
The 84 respondents in the poll who had been in prison themselves, and thus speak from a position of experience, were even more likely to agree (68%) that the funds should be spent on support services instead.
An estimated 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment each year.  Crest’s poll found that over half of respondents (58%) agreed that mothers should only be given a custodial sentence for a non-violent crime ‘if no other option is available' and those who had had been in prison themselves also strongly supported not imprisoning mothers for non-violent crimes (72%). Yet in 2020, 72% of women who entered prison under sentence had committed a non-violent offence (Prison Reform Trust), showing the gap between what the public support and what is currently happening in the criminal justice system.
60% of the general public support mothers being 'given support in the community to stop offending without going to prison', with parents slightly more likely to endorse this, with similar levels of support between men and women and regardless of age.
The recent reports on pregnancy in prison has shone a light on the trauma faced by women in this circumstance. We also know that when a mother is sent to prison, a coordinated response to support the woman with this separation, and their children with the often sudden loss of their mother, is variable across the country.
As one woman accessing One Small Thing’s Healing Trauma peer support programme in prison highlighted: "it's not just me suffering, you know, my kids, my grandkids, it affected them as well, it was a ripple effect" .
Access to peer support, talking therapies, and other mental health support for mothers in prison is crucial, alongside support for children in the community. There is strong support from the public for this community response to be improved with three quarters of people (74%) agreeing that schools should be informed when a pupil’s mother is imprisoned and that local authorities should be made aware (75%). A similar proportion agreed that counselling should be offered to the children (72%) and that financial support should be offered to those looking after them (62%). However, as Crest’s previous research has found (Children of Prisoners: 2019), there is currently no requirement for courts to notify local authorities when a parent is sent to prison, meaning that schools and other agencies that could provide children with support often remain unaware.
Awareness of the practical impact on children when a mother goes to prison received a mixed response. About a third believed there would likely be no difference in a child’s housing (33%), school (41%) or future living arrangements, such as having to go into foster care or to live with other family members, while 71% believed it was more likely a child would go into the care system. The fact that all these circumstances are more likely for children whose mothers go to prison  suggests that support for alternatives to prison might be even higher if there was greater awareness of the disruption and impact on a child caused by maternal imprisonment.
The data highlights a need for awareness raising work on the reality of the harms and long-term impact of maternal imprisonment both for women and their children.
Awareness of women’s sentencing
The polling suggests that overall, the public are aware that women are more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent crimes than men, however the distribution is even more skewed than they know.
For example, when asked about child truancy, the general public believe that 57% of those who receive a custodial sentence are women. The reality is much more extreme. Women made up 71% of the 19,600 convictions for child truancy in 2019, a difference larger than could be accounted for by the lone parents in the sample. 
The polling also found that the public believed the non-payment of TV licence has a 50/50 custodial sentencing split for women and men. Whilst custodial sentences are rare, official statistics show that TV licence evasion was the most common offence for which women were convicted in 2019, and 74% of those convicted were women. This offence accounted for 30% of all female convictions, compared to 4% of male convictions. 
One Small Thing’s Founder and Chair Lady Edwina Grosvenor interviewed Naima Sakande about her work challenging the practice of imprisonment for non-payment of Council Tax and TV license fines and its disproportionate impact on women and children for our Justice podcast.
Redesigning the system
At One Small Thing our mission is to redesign the justice system for women and their children, and to promote a more compassionate approach which understands and responds to trauma.
It is heartening to know that almost three quarters (73%) of the public agree that prisons should provide support around mental health and trauma, and two thirds (65%) think that prisons should understand and meet the specific needs of women and men.
However, redesigning the system is not just about making existing prisons less re-traumatising for women. It means funding community alternatives, reducing women’s imprisonment, and giving far greater consideration to the wider impact on families and communities when mothers are sent to prison. The Government’s own Female Offender Strategy acknowledges that most women in prison do not need to be there and there is a growing body of evidence that prison is more expensive  than the alternatives which are also more likely to reduce reoffending .
A 2020 report by Women’s Budget Group  showed that a place at a Women’s Centre ranges from £1,223 to £4,125 per woman depending on needs, whilst the government’s own data shows that a place in prison costs £52,121 a year. For 500 new places this would cost around £2 million for places in women’s centres (using the most expensive estimate), compared to £26 million for prison places. The report suggests that a holistic community-based approach which addresses the major drivers of women’s offending, such as domestic and sexual violence, debt, unstable housing and employment and mental and physical ill health, also produces significant cost savings. In the long-term they estimate £2.84 is saved for every £1 spent, so as well as being far cheaper, there could also be a saving of £5,680,000 if £2,000,000 was spent on women’s centre places.
In light of clear evidence, we’re asking the government to listen to what the public would prefer, and divert this funding to where it will have a greater impact on improving lives and preventing crime.
We are currently working with women to design and build a pioneering residential community for women and their children affected by the criminal justice system in Hampshire called Hope Street. Find out more here and follow our build on instagram
We also support the new campaign to end the imprisonment of pregnant women led by We Level Up, Birth Companions and Women in Prison. Sign the petition here.
Source data for the polling referenced in the blog can be found here.
 Kincaid, S., Roberts, M. & Kane, E. (2019) Children of Prisoners: Fixing a broken system, Crest Advisory  https://researchportal.port.ac.uk/portal/files/14351866/HT_evaluation_full_report_June_2019.pdf  The Corson Report (p20) and Minson, S (2017) Who Cares? Analysing the place of children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales.  Ministry of Justice (2020) Statistics on Women and the Criminal justice System 2019: A Ministry of Justice publication under Section 95 of the Criminal Act 1991. November 2020, London: MoJ  Ibid.  Unlocking Value: How we all benefit from investing in alternatives to prison for women offenders  Hedderman, C. and Jolliffe, D. (2015) The impact of prison for women on the edge: paying the price for wrong decisions, Victims and Offenders: An international journal of evidence-based research, policy and practice. 10 (2), pp.152-178.  The Case for Sustainable Funding for Women’s Centres (Women’s Budget Group, 2020)