At a time when coronavirus has disrupted society as we know it, and essentially the whole UK prison system since March 2020, what must life be like for mothers incarcerated during a global pandemic?
Perception and attitude toward female imprisonment have always been problematic. Only now has it become apparent that the poorly regulated population of pregnant women and women in Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) in the penal system require greater government attention.
In light of the COVID-19, pregnant women and mothers with babies were among the first tranche of prisoners considered for temporary release on the grounds of compassion. As of September 2020, 25 women were released from custody to protect themselves and their children.
But many mothers continued their sentences under strict regimes.
A mother-of-two, who wishes to be named Rowland to protect her identity, was fortunate to have been released from prison three months before the pandemic hit.
Now out on licence in Leeds, having served two and half years inside Low Newton prison in Brasside near Durham, she expressed how “sorry” she felt for mothers carrying out their sentence during these unprecedented times.
She said being in prison as a mother was “incredibly difficult” and not being able to see her children was “horrendous”.
She describes how frightening being incarcerated made her feel from having “no voice or control over anything”.
She said: “I was in an extremely abusive relationship when I committed my offence and going into jail was like going back into that abusive relationship, which I think says something about the society we live in.”
She said it was as if she had died and been forgotten about by those who knew her best. But she was fortunate to have built up strong bonds with other mothers who were also serving time.
“If it hadn’t been for the fact that I made some good friends I don’t think I’d be here now because I don’t think I would have coped with it at all,” she added.
The 58-year-old told BristolLive that women should not be put behind bars unless they were “literally serial killers”.
From visitor restrictions to being locked in a prison cell for 23 hours every day, the average civilian can only imagine what the impact of confinement must be like for a parent on the inside.
Fortunately, the then minister of state for prisons, Lucy Frazer QC MP, announced measures to compensate for the loss of social visits.
In June 2020, Eastwood Park, a closed prison for women near Bristol in Falfield, South Gloucestershire, was the first to be chosen as a pilot site for ‘Purple Visits ’, a video calling platform to help the people in custody to have visual contact with their families.
Although implementations did not happen overnight, the realities of the pandemic had already begun to impact the health of prisoners.
An annual report of Eastwood Park by the Independent Monitoring Board found that despite efforts of the prison and healthcare staff, prolonged lockdown had a profound impact on the physical and mental health of prisoners.
The lack of contact with families and fellow prisoners had inevitably affected the well-being of female offenders, from the unpleasant experience of eating meals inside their cells to reports of self-harming as a coping mechanism.
Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison, said: “The devastating effects that coronavirus has had on women in prison and their families are not simply a by-product of the pandemic but of the prison itself.
“We know 95 per cent of children have to leave their home when their mother goes to prison and the severe mental health effects on both women and their children caused by this separation can and must be avoided.”
Trans rights in prison advocate, Dalton Harrison who lives as a transgender man in Leeds, said he saw first-hand what life is like for a parent in prison after being incarcerated for two years.
He said: “Being in a women’s prison has shown me the impact of parenting inside, how children grow up seeing prison as an option, and how prison walls surround their critical years of socialisation. This closed environment damages bonds and development between the mother and child, which leads to multi-generational incarceration that I have witnessed inside.”
The 41-year-old said the initial response at the beginning of lockdown was seen as just a part of prison life but believes the effect of no physical contact on the children may not be apparent for years to come.
A study conducted by Dr Shona Minson, whose academic work explores parental imprisonment, found that children whose parents were behind bars during the first lockdown had increased anxiety and feared their parents would die. Her findings also revealed that lack of family contact and restrictions made parents inside prison depressed.
In summary, she stated: “In one instance the parent in prison had cut off all contact with his ten-year-old child, as he found it too painful to not be able to tell her when she would see him again. The child had therefore entirely lost the parental relationship and had begun to self-harm.”
Dr Miranda Davies, a senior fellow at the Nuffield Trust whose research focuses on prisoner health, said the long-term impact of the pandemic on people in prison is not yet known. And it is not until prison regimes are back to normality that statistics around self-harming will be of immediate importance.
A thematic review by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons of what happens to prisoners in a pandemic showed the well-being of prisoners had declined due to being confined to their cells.
“The most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being,” said Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.
He added that “the cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound” and saw “a sense of hopelessness and helplessness becoming engrained”.
In a justice committee report released in September, as many as 70 per cent of prisoners in England and Wales may have mental health issues.
Although socially-distant visits have resumed in prisons, the outbreak of Covid-19 has only exacerbated the known problems that occur when mothers are separated from their families and young children.
So now that restrictions have been relaxed, how can the system make things better for women in prison?
A survey shared to different Bristol postcode groups via Facebook, asked whether mothers convicted of non-violent crimes and relatively minor crimes should avoid prison. And out of 40 people who responded, 60 per cent said yes while 40 per cent said no.
The responses were relatively the same when conducted using a Twitter poll. It seems the consensus did not see prison as a necessary punishment for offences committed by a mother deemed non-violent or minor.
One Twitter user said: “Not just mums either. For anyone convicted of a minor, non-violent crime we should be looking at alternatives to custodial sentences, focusing on what actually prevents reoffending.”
Instead, they’ve suggested measures along the lines of restorative Justice, support groups to challenge behaviour or skills and employability training as an alternative solution.
Women’s rights groups, researchers and many criminologists say the prison system has a detrimental effect on female offenders, arguing that women are shoe-horned into a system designed for men where policies and laws fail to acknowledge the challenges associated with women incarcerated.
According to a 2007 report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System by baroness Jean Corston, women’s needs are not being properly met.
She said: “Women have been marginalised within a system largely designed by men for men for far too long and there is a need for a “champion” to ensure that their needs are properly recognised and met.”
It is said that the criminal justice system has historically been ‘designed by men for men’. Some say that policies and laws fail to acknowledge the challenges associated with women incarcerated.
A 2019 report by the Ministry of Justice, found that in the last 5 years, women in the criminal justice system were consistently among the higher proportion of prisoners who self-harmed. And in 2019, the number of cases per 1,000 prisoners was 335 for females and 148 for males.
Further challenges include substance misuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, illiteracy and suicide when compared with male prisoners.
Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison, said the Police, Crime, and Sentencing Courts Bill is an opportunity for the Government to strengthen the law to stop pregnant women and mothers from being imprisoned.
“We know there is another way that keeps families together. When women are given support in the community, women’s Centres provide an anchor for women to tackle the root causes that sweep them into a crime,” she added.
She believes courts must consider what is in the best interest of a child when imposing sentences.
Police and Crime Commissioner from Avon and Somerset, Mark Shelford, said understanding why women commit crimes is necessary when implementing alternative solutions.
He said: “The causes of women’s offending are complex for a number of reasons and short-term sentences do not allow time for rehabilitation.
“Instead, we need to be providing the right interventions at the right time to support those women who are stuck in a cycle of reoffending. It’s just as important to understand what causes women to re-offend as it is to divert them away from crime.”
As the pandemic is not yet over and prisons are likely to continue to use restricted regimes to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is unclear whether mothers and pregnant women would benefit from being placed in community-based programmes, rather than being sentenced to jail.
However, in a male-dominated criminal justice system, questions continue to be raised around its suitability for mothers.
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