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Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment

Insights Report


Lead author: Julia Pitman, Associate

Co-author: Jess Hull, Policy and Communications Analyst

Monday 25 October 2021


The Government’s Female Offender Strategy contains the core strategic objective of having ‘fewer women in custody (especially on short-term sentences) and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully’. This report focuses on the cost of female imprisonment for two particularly vulnerable groups; mothers who are imprisoned and their children. However, maternal imprisonment also has a high cost for the taxpayers who fund the agencies charged with picking up the pieces in the longer term. To explain the wider impact of maternal imprisonment, it is necessary to take a ‘whole systems approach’, analysing how the criminal justice system responds to maternal imprisonment, identifying the impacts of existing responses not only on the life chances of imprisoned mothers and their children, but also the economic impact through potentially avoidable costs which accrue.


Our research found that a deep distrust of local authority social services, compounded by poor communication and information sharing, forms a significant barrier to engaging mothers with services which could help prevent them from offending and support prolonged desistance. Our research also suggests there is a significant cohort of mothers in the criminal justice system who have had children removed from their care. The specific journey of these mothers into and through the criminal justice system needs to be better understood and the underlying causes addressed.

Practitioners and policy makers now understand parental imprisonment as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Maternal imprisonment has a far greater impact on children than paternal imprisonment, since mothers are more often the sole or primary carer.

We found that the effects of maternal imprisonment can be severe and long-lasting on children, leading to exclusion from school, increased vulnerability to exploitation, mental health issues and youth crime, ultimately leading to incarceration. Children are not routinely offered targeted support to deal with the acute trauma of separation from their mother which could reduce the impacts. The financial and social cost of this missed opportunity is significant. Our research shows that interventions with children affected by maternal imprisonment were costing the taxpayer as much as £265,008 per family when the cost of the mother's custodial sentence is taken into consideration.

Current sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure judges and magistrates consider sole or primary carer status as a mitigating factor, yet our research also suggests that awareness of and application of these guidelines is low.

Ultimately, as many of the mothers we spoke to emphasised, it is children who bear the consequences of maternal imprisonment. It is vital that agencies come together with comprehensive, integrated strategies to mitigate the huge societal costs of sending mothers to prison.

The costs of maternal imprisonment on mothers, their children and on the exchequer cannot be addressed by one agency alone but must be the work of the whole system which it activates; from safer neighbourhood teams and schools to probation workers and social services.

Key findings

Data collection on maternal status is inconsistent, limiting the ability of relevant agencies to understand the scope and scale of those affected by maternal imprisonment

  • Many agencies don’t proactively record this information and, where they do, data collection is inconsistent

  • The way questions are worded is vital to ensuring all maternal circumstances are recorded, not just sole or primary carer status

  • Reluctance to disclose maternal status for fear of social services involvement is an important barrier to data collection

The trauma of separation from children is not sufficiently recognised or understood by the prison system

  • Mothers experience significant emotional distress which prisons are not equipped to deal with. Behaviour linked to this distress can be labelled as aggressive, which perversely counts against mothers in procedures related to contact with their children

  • Uniformed prison staff working on the wing face challenges in identifying and supporting mothers with the trauma of separation from children

  • Practical barriers within the system undermine the ability of mothers to maintain contact with their children, including ROTL processes, prison transfers and closed prison conditions

Maternal rights are undermined by poor relationships with social services

  • Mothers in prison often don’t know their parental rights, piecing knowledge together through conversations with other prisoners over time. This can result in long periods with no contact or visitation until mothers assert their rights

  • A lack of consistency from social workers in their approach to prison visits and contact with children creates a postcode lottery for mothers

  • Insufficient steps are taken to ensure mothers can engage in local authority meetings and court proceedings related to their children’s care

Mothers face a specific set of challenges on release from prison

  • The lack of appropriate housing for women is a barrier to re-establishing contact with children and the application process for social housing creates a ‘Catch 22’ for mothers attempting to get a home big enough to accommodate their children

  • Mothers are often unprepared for and unsupported with the challenges of rebuilding relationships with their children, which can include anger and resentment from older children and attachment issues in younger children

  • Probation services don’t sufficiently recognise and support the specific needs of mothers, undermining their ability to maximise motherhood as a rehabilitation asset

Maternal imprisonment is a significant trauma for children with potentially devastating consequences

  • Arrest and court proceedings can be traumatic for children. Their voices are not being heard throughout the criminal justice process

  • A lack of honest communication with children about what is happening heightens confusion and creates distrust

  • Stigma and shame around maternal imprisonment has adverse impacts on children’s education and social relationships

  • In the longer term, maternal imprisonment can have life-long adverse effects for children, and therefore a significant cost to society

Opportunities to divert mothers out of the criminal justice system are being missed

  • The removal of a child/children by social services is a common trigger for substance misuse and toxic relationships which can lead to further offending. It is likely that there is a significant cohort of women in prison who are mothers whose children were removed some time prior to the offence for which they were given a custodial sentence

  • The journey of mothers who have experienced the removal of a child into the criminal justice system is not sufficiently recognised or understood, nor are these mothers captured by current data collection systems

  • Diversionary schemes and community orders are not addressing the needs of mothers who offend, leaving many in a cycle of short sentences

  • Awareness of relevant sentencing guidelines related to sole and primary carers is low, and the judiciary are failing to adequately consider the impact of custody on children

Principles for reform

Our research points us towards three broad principles which should guide the response to mitigating the impact of maternal imprisonment on mothers, children and society as a whole.

  1. Mothers should only be sent to prison as a last resort. Prison sentences for minor offences and short sentences are counterproductive. Tailored, trauma-informed interventions with mothers in the community and greater awareness of and adherence to relevant sentencing guidelines would ensure that fewer mothers are sent to prison

  2. Children affected by maternal imprisonment must be offered specialist support. It is vital that agencies working with children understand and can recognise the impacts of maternal imprisonment and are able to refer children to bespoke support in their local area

  3. Maternal identity and the impact of separation from children must be recognised, understood and supported by all agencies working with mothers who have committed a criminal offence.

Summary of recommendations

A renewed focus on reducing maternal imprisonment through community alternatives to custody for women

  • Ensure women in or at risk of contact with the criminal justice system can access the support they need in their local community.

  • The government should invest in the implementation of the Female Offender Strategy, including sustainable funding of at least £70 million per annum for a third sector network of community-based Women's Centres to provide holistic, women-centred services to all women in contact with the criminal justice system.

  • Mandatory training for the judiciary on the impact of maternal imprisonment and sentencing guidelines for those with primary caring responsibilities.

The Ministry of Justice and the Department of Education should produce a joint policy framework on maternal imprisonment

  • Mandatory requirements addressing the additional emotional and practical needs of all mothers in prison and how prisons will support them.

  • Ensure women involved in the criminal justice system who have experienced the removal of a child are offered trauma-informed intensive support.

  • The government should roll out of the current social worker pilot being run in two prisons by the Prison Advice and Care Trust (PACT) across the entire female prison estate.

  • A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) should be developed between the DfE and HMPPS setting out key principles on how both services work with mothers and children affected by maternal imprisonment, counteracting the current postcode lottery.

Local strategies to mitigate the impacts of maternal imprisonment on children led by Police and Crime Commissioners

  • Regular monitoring of data on mothers given custodial sentences to hold the judiciary to account for adherence to relevant sentencing guidelines.

  • LCJBs should agree local strategies to reduce maternal imprisonment and support children affected by maternal imprisonment, supported by delivery plans setting out actions for individual agencies

  • In consultation with LCJBs, PCCs should commission specialist support for children impacted by maternal imprisonment, to be offered to any child via referral from agencies. This should include an offer of a mentor.


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