Support for mothers in prison and on release lacking, according to new report

Mothers who are in prison, or on release, who are also victims or survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA), are being let down by the criminal justice system, a new report has found.

The image is a close-up of two hands wrapped around the bars of a prison cell.
  • A new report has found that there is a huge gap between the policy intended to support mothers in prison who are victims of domestic violence and abuse, and its implementation
  • The study found that women's needs are not being met, which can lead to poorer outcomes for both mothers and their children
  • A comprehensive list of 20 recommendations has been proposed to assist the criminal justice system to support mothers to be successfully resettled upon release
  • The report highlights the growing awareness of the links between women’s imprisonment, mothering, and domestic abuse
  • Over 60 per cent of women in prison in England and Wales have dependent children and have been the victim of domestic violence and abuse

Mothers who are in prison, or on release, who are also victims or survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA), are being let down by the criminal justice system, a new report has found.

Researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Salford found there to be a lack of evidence to show that the needs of these women are being met through targeted intervention either in prison, or upon release.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the researchers conducted a review of policy and practice for mothers in, or leaving prison in England and Wales, who have past or current experience of DVA; and a systematic review of international evidence of interventions. They have published 20 recommendations to help improve outcomes for these women.

According to the 1997 Home Office census over 60 per cent of women prisoners are mothers to dependent children, and at the same time, reports indicate that 60 per cent of women in prison in England and Wales have also experienced DVA.

Current standards require prisoners to be supported in dealing with the impact of abuse, to help them better identify risk factors, networks of support and to increase the safety of the individual and their children.

The report found that there were examples of good practice in the prison system in supporting prisoners' mental health and reducing reoffending, which included recognising the importance of family work by helping prisoners to repair and maintain family relationships.

However, the analysis highlights that the availability of these interventions was variable and often lacked a future focus in relation to abuse prevention, relationships, and safety and well-being for women and their children upon release.

Dr Michaela Rogers, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Sociological Studies, said: “There is growing concern about the needs and experiences of mothers in prison, and the acknowledgement that imprisonment can have a damaging impact on both women and their children.

"Our review has found that the heightened awareness about the links between women’s imprisonment, mothering, and domestic abuse, has not translated into better practice, with the speed, consistency and parity that is needed to reach and make a difference for all imprisoned mothers in England and Wales.”

The report highlighted that mothers in prison can experience shame, hopelessness and a sense of failure. These can trigger self-destructive behaviours which may impact successful release and resettlement with their families.

Dr Rogers added: “Maintaining family relationships throughout custody is recognised as critical for prisoner well-being, reducing prison disturbances, encouraging adjustment to prison life and supporting successful resettlement.

“Although significant policies have been created to address the challenges that mothers in prison face, we found the issues of mothering, DVA and rehabilitation of prisoners are still dealt with as separate issues, and not interconnected experiences.”

To address the disconnect between policy rhetoric and implementation, one of the major concerns resulting from the review, the researchers have proposed 20 recommendations. They aim to provide policy makers and the criminal justice system with a more unified and consistent approach to the needs of women leaving prison, including:

  • Training sessions upon entry to prison that enable women to recognise experiences of victimisation and encourage engagement in intervention.
  • Parenting skills and wider relationship skills programmes, incorporating DVA awareness, to help repair relationships and promote healthy family functioning should be more accessible.
  • Evidence-based DVA interventions to be available both in, and out of prison as set out in a national strategy and action plan to ensure consistency of access and delivery.
  • Improved safeguarding and safety planning for mothers with experience of DVA in the preparation for their release from prison.
  • The proposal for residential women’s centres to be revisited to address the high number of women in custody for short sentences and non-violent offences to increase family connectedness.

Ash Patel, Programme Head for Justice at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Imprisonment can be a doubly severe punishment for mothers, forcing separation from their children, and potentially causing long lasting harm to both. Sentencing also often fails to account for the pernicious impact of DVA on offending and rehabilitation.

“This study highlights the inadequacy of many rehabilitative interventions in prison which fail to account for the joint trauma of being separated from a child and the violence they have faced. Importantly, it makes valuable recommendations to ensure interventions are better targeted to the needs of mothers so their outcomes are improved when they leave prison.”

Jenny Earle, Women’s Programme Director for the Prison Reform Trust between 2012 and 2020, and member of the research project advisory group, said: “A constant cry from policy makers, service providers and funders, under pressure to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system, is evidence of the effectiveness of interventions and initiatives. This authoritative review of research and policy will therefore be welcomed by all those advocating for change and those responsible for delivering it.”

Dr Rogers said: “It is our hope that this review stimulates further discussion about what needs to change across the women's estate, and prompts more research for mothers affected by domestic abuse when in prison and on their release, with a particular focus on the support needed for mothers to strengthen or re-establish their relationships with their children."

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