Raikes, Ben (2009) Imprisoned mothers: ‘out of sight, out of mind’. A missed opportunity for rebuilding mother-child relationships. In: Navigating Risks and Building Resilience in Small States, 27 March 2009, Cavehill campus, Barbados. (Unpublished)

Introduction: All countries have female prisoners, many of whom are mothers. In most cases imprisonment leads to the separation of mothers from their children, which generally has harmful consequences. Moral judgements often mean that imprisoned mothers are not considered as a priority group for resources and thus services to support mother-child relationships during imprisonment are generally underdeveloped. This paper examines the barriers faced by imprisoned mothers when they try to make use of their time in custody to take steps towards rebuilding relationships with their children. The paper explores lessons learned from a project that operated at a Women’s Prison in the North of England, providing both Positive Parenting Courses and Family Mediation. The literature suggests that few countries have addressed the impact on children when their mothers are imprisoned. The paper thus raises important questions for policy and practice internationally and is a significant contribution to knowledge in this area.

Method: Literature regarding the issues faced by imprisoned mothers is reviewed. Semi structured interviews were conducted with staff and prisoners involved in a Prison Parenting Project. A focus group was also facilitated with prisoners who had attended the Positive Parenting Course. Key policy and practice points were identified to inform the way social care agencies work with imprisoned mothers and their children.

Findings: Imprisoned mothers consistently reported that during their time in prison there was minimal acknowledgement of their role as parents. However they regarded stress and guilt arising from enforced separation from their children as the primary cause of suicide, self harm and violence towards staff and other prisoners. This view was confirmed by prison staff from all departments. Additionally, the literature indicates that children are often emotionally affected when separated from mothers who are imprisoned and that these effects may be significant and long-lasting.

Policy and practice Implications: It is clear that many imprisoned mothers want to use their time in custody to face up to the mistakes they have made in relation to parenting their children. This is a painful process which requires a considerable degree of self analysis, but with assistance from appropriate parenting support programmes mothers in prison can be empowered to take gradual steps towards focussing more clearly on their children’s needs. This has the potential to deliver great benefits to their children. Caribbean countries, like many other parts of the world, have increasing prison populations and an increasing number of children who are affected by the incarceration of their mothers. In a cultural context in which women have the primary responsibility for care giving, this paper raises important issues for consideration for rehabilitation policy and programming.

This paper commences with a review of the literature relating to imprisoned mothers to set the work that was undertaken at Styal prison in context. After sketching out the background to the project, the attributes of the women using the service are discussed, as are the different care arrangements that were in place for their children during their sentence. The Positive Parenting Courses are explored, starting with the themes that emerged from a focus group that was held in June 2008. The focus group was made up of imprisoned mothers who had undertaken the Course.

The original idea in relation to the mediation side of the Project within the prison is contrasted to the different, but equally valuable work that was carried out. Issues relating to Social Services in relation to the Project are explored. The different approaches of the mediation project are discussed, including letter writing, and the potential for the indirect mediation that took place to act as a catalyst to improve relations between imprisoned mothers and those providing care for their children during their sentence. The benefits of assisting imprisoned mothers to record DVDs are described in relation to a prisoner who made a DVD, whilst noting that unfortunately, for security reasons, this side of the project was not developed as much as had been anticipated. The importance of good relations with other personnel within the prison is highlighted, with reference to the differences in approach that occasionally arose between the Probation staff and the Mediator / Family Support Worker.

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