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Roundtable: Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment

Insights Perspective


Jess Hull, Communications and Policy Analyst

Thursday 4 February 2021

To coincide with the launch of Crest’s next collaboration with the Hadley Trust, Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment, Crest hosted a virtual roundtable discussion bringing together some of the leading experts on this subject from government, academia and the third sector to identify the key lines of inquiry for our research.

The roundtable successfully brought together a range of individuals with different perspectives on the topic and led to a dynamic discussion on the multiple harms of maternal imprisonment. Crest will carry this insight forward as we progress with our research.

Understanding the problem

The roundtable began with a discussion around the wider impacts of maternal imprisonment, with emphasis placed on the stigma and shame experienced by the children affected. The trauma caused by separation and the lasting negative impact on family relationships were noted as long-term issues, compounded by an absence in provision for therapeutic and holistic family support to facilitate reconnection. In relation to wider impacts, it was advised that the disproportionate number of women in custody from black, Asian, and other ethnic minority groups must be taken into consideration.

The discussion moved on to explore the points in the system where diversion could be implemented. It was also suggested that better communication between probation managers and service providers would improve access to support. Several people raised the importance of recognising the drivers behind maternal imprisonment in order to enact effective early interventions, concluding that once a family is involved with the criminal justice system, needs are more complex and trauma more entrenched.

It was unanimously recognised that early interventions must be paired with robust and consistent data collection around the number of mothers in prison with dependent children and the number of children with mothers in prison. Critical to accurate data collection, it was suggested, is ensuring that mothers feel safe to share information about their dependent children. There was a feeling that organisations and authorities are guilty of passing the buck with regard to the responsibility for data collection - and that statutory responsibility for children with parents in prison is critical. It was reiterated that we must have access to accurate numbers in order to assess need.

However, the issue of data collection was not without its complexities. There was recognition that improved transparency and the routine identification of children whose mothers are in prison must be weighed alongside the risk of stigmatisation. Several also noted potential data anomalies that could distort the true picture - specifically, an absence of data on children whose mothers are imprisoned abroad, and the perceived association of low volume and low impact when data on female prisoners is compared with that of male prisoners.

Finally, the discussion moved to re-centre the wellbeing of the child as the baseline for policy, rather than a desired outcome. It was noted that, unless the well-being of the child is focal, there exists a risk of intergenerational offending, unemployment, addiction and mental health issues - costly to the public purse.

Identifying the barriers

The lack of political will for change was identified by several as a key barrier to reform. It was suggested that deep-rooted political mentalities had negatively impacted sentencing outcomes for mothers, reinforcing damaging stereotypes and influencing public opinion on maternal imprisonment.

The role played by magistrates, who are viewed as being reluctant to engage with the issue, was also highlighted as a critical blockage to change. There was a feeling that the judiciary is generally unaware of the wide-ranging impacts of maternal imprisonment, and guidelines on sentencing are poorly communicated. Magistrates do not, therefore, make informed sentencing decisions with regard to mothers, and may even consider the punitive aspect of the separation between mother and child as a reasonable outcome.

Building a platform for change

As an immediate action, it was suggested that the sector must collectively resist the government’s plan to build 500 new prison places for women - a policy which, it was felt, contradicted the government’s own strategy on female offenders. A more effective rollout and gendered approach to the early release scheme was also proposed as a critical step in the short term.

Finally, there was consensus that the undercurrent of stigma attached to mothers who are in prison must be addressed if meaningful progress is to be made. Several spoke of the abuse they had personally received after speaking out on the harms of maternal imprisonment, and noted the repercussions for mothers who have been in prison - and their children - when sharing their experiences. It was agreed that research or data collection on maternal imprisonment must recognise the stigma attached to speaking out, and must therefore have tangible benefit to those at risk of abuse.

What has Crest learnt?

The roundtable discussion was dynamic and constructive - illuminating avenues for exploration and collaboration. Crest has taken on board all points raised, which will inform our thinking on key issues as we move forward with our research.

  • Early intervention is key. If opportunities for diversion are missed, pressures build within the system and ultimately cost more down the line. Our research will seek to demonstrate the benefits of early intervention and recommend critical points of diversion.

  • Lack of identification leads to a lack of support. Crest will consider how universal services might do more to recognise and support the children of prisoners, understanding that this work must be done alongside de-stigmatisation of the issue.

  • Disappointing lack of engagement from the Department for Education and Ofsted. Crest recognises that a national join up between children’s services and the Ministry of Justice is crucial to reform.

  • Absence of multi-agency working on this issue. Crest understands that agencies could do more to communicate effectively. There are also opportunities for cross-departmental working at government level.

  • Public opinion must change. The multiple harms and costs of maternal imprisonment are not widely known and negative stereotypes remain. Crest will commission a YouGov poll to gain insight into public perceptions and inform positive narratives moving forward.

  • The harm of stigmatisation cannot be ignored. We need to find a way to tell the stories of those affected by maternal imprisonment without risk of retraumatisation, while ensuring that their voices remain central and powerful.

We would like to thank everyone who attended the roundtable discussion for sharing their invaluable insight. With the generous support of the Hadley Trust, we will take this learning forward to create a platform for change - and work to end the costly cycle of harm.


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