‘Women in the Criminal Justice System – mothers too’

July blog post by Leila-Zoe Mezoughi, reporting on the first two talks in our recent event, ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System – mothers too’

Women’s Breakout combined forces with Re-Unite (a charity assisting mothers to be reunited with their children after prison) to deliver a thought provoking and emotive event titled ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System – mothers too’.

The event opened with senior criminologist and author, Lucy Baldwin, who focused on mothers in prison. Lucy addressed the vast array of women support workers and said “There shouldn’t be so many of us here in this room. Our intervention should not be the starting point. There shouldn’t be so much social injustice.”

Lucy outlined society’s preconceived ideas of the female being nurturing, passive and selfless. This means that when a female offends, she receives harsher scrutiny from society than a man, as a female is placed on a higher pedestal. This affects the female offender’s mental state dramatically and can explain the prevalence of mental illness in female prisons. Equally worrying, is the fact that this bias has been seen to influence the judiciary into handing down lengthier sentences to females. This bias Lucy adds is exacerbated when the female offender is a mother.

Lucy explored a real life case study in which a mother is given a custodial sentence for having purchased a stolen T.V, from a neighbour, on her council estate in Manchester. The judge in his sentencing remarks stated “you are supposed to be a role model for your son, you should have reported the items stolen immediately and informed the police of the seller.” This situation is indicative not only of the judicial bias towards mothers but also of the judicial lack of understanding of the working class. The judge clearly put no thought into the consequences for that women and her son if she were to “grass up” her neighbour for selling stolen items.

The key issue; Lucy concluded that the majority (some 80%) of women are given short custodial sentences for non-violent offences. The female prison population has more than doubled since 1995. The deepest concern is that most of these incarcerated women are single mothers. 18,000 children are affected annually by their mother being imprisoned. Only 5% of these children meet their mothers again. Once a child is taken into the care system it is an “uphill battle” to get them home again, regardless if the mother’s offence was buying a stolen T.V, from her neighbour. How does a mother cope in prison knowing that she has a child outside that may not see her again? How does she deal with the fear that her custodial sentence is a sentence for her child too? These are a million what-ifs that a mother goes through in prison from the moment she wakes up to the moment see goes to sleep.

Yvonne Rogers of Barnardo’s was the next speaker and focused on what the justice system does to children. “Children and young people of prisoners deserve the same chances as anyone else. Yet we know they have worse outcomes. They are serving an unfair sentence.” Barnardo’s has been conducting research into the impact on children when their mother is imprisoned. Yvonne explained that the results are of grave concern and that the level of irreversible damage done to a child, due to parental separation, has forced Barnardo’s to make this area a “key focus”. It is not rocket science to recognise that a child with a parent in prison is also more likely to end up in prison themselves. This intergenerational cycle of crime is hugely costly to society and to the government. However, we know this so why is nothing changing?

The resolution is simple; stop handing detrimental short custodial sentences to women for misdemeanour offences. 64% of women reoffend after serving a short prison sentence. However according to figures from Anawim a women’s support centre that offers community based alternatives to custody, only 3% of women using its support services reoffend. Anawim offers vulnerable women such as sex workers, addicts and victims of domestic violence, crucial support to stop the reoffending and works to reintegrate women back into their community. The average cost of a 6 month prison place for a woman is £28,000. This can be compared to the cost of a place at Anawim which according to the MOJ is just £1,360 per women. This seminar, again, brought to surface the huge reforms that need to occur in women’s justice.

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