Mothering from the Inside

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Research on Mothering and Imprisonment



Table of contents

(14 chapters)

Part I From Sentence to Resettlement: Experiences of Maternal Imprisonment


The chapter is based on studies that explored the consideration of motherhood as a mitigating factor when sentencing women to imprisonment in criminal courts in England and Wales. Drawing upon two studies I conducted, it examines the way in which motherhood has been constructed by the courts and the difficulties in centring women's experiences within sentencing. It demonstrates how only by moving to a focus on children's rights has it been possible to ensure sentencers consider the implications of a defendant's motherhood.

The chapter outlines the parameters within which a sentencer can consider motherhood and explores some of the findings from the qualitative research I undertook with Crown Court judges, as part of a larger study in which I also interviewed children whose mother was at the time of interview in prison and the adults providing care to the children in her absence. The studies found that there was inconsistent understanding of a sentencer's duty to consider the impact of any sentence upon dependent children, coupled with a lack of understanding of the consequences of maternal imprisonment for a child. The ways in which this contravenes the Human Rights Act, 1998 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 are identified.

The resources which have been developed for sentencing professionals as a consequence of that work are discussed before considering the lack of concern for women's motherhood when imprisoning women on remand or recall. The chapter concludes with a call for motherhood, and not just children's rights, to be centred in sentencing decisions.


Family life can be seriously disrupted when a mother is imprisoned. The separation changes and often reduces the type, frequency and quality of contact that can be achieved between family members, and especially for children when their mothers were their primary carers and living with them before her imprisonment. In England and Wales, prisoners are permitted contact with children and families through prison visits, telephone contact and letter-writing through the post, and in some prisons via email. Despite the recent policy interest in supporting prisoners' family ties, research has highlighted the challenges that families and prisoners face using these communicative mechanisms. Building on this, the chapter contributes new knowledge by shifting the lens to explore how family members construct and adjust their practices to promote mother–child contact during maternal imprisonment.

The empirical study draws on semistructured interviews with mothers in prison and family members (caregivers) to children of female prisoners. Guided by a ‘family practices’ theoretical framework (Morgan, 2011), the findings show innovative adjustments, a willingness to make sacrifices and alternative routes to improve contact utilised by mothers and caregivers to prioritise mother–child contact. We see the strength, resilience and autonomy shown by family members to promote their relationships in spite of communicative barriers. There are important lessons to be learned from the families' lived experience for policy and practice, which, without due and genuine consideration, might further hinder opportunities for mother–child contact during maternal imprisonment.


Around 7% of the female prison population are pregnant (Albertson, O'Keeffe, Lessing-Turner, Burke & Renfrew, 2014; Kennedy, Marshall, Parkinson, Delap, & Abbott, 2016; Prison Reform Trust, 2019). However, although recent years have witnessed growing academic interest in relation to mothering and imprisonment, limited attention has been paid to exploring the experiences of pregnancy for women serving a custodial sentence. Combining health and criminological research, this chapter offers a unique perspective of women's accounts of pregnancy and imprisonment, highlighting the specific challenges faced by pregnant women in negotiating the prison environment, whilst also illustrating the adaptive strategies adopted to cope with pregnancy and new motherhood in the context of imprisonment.


From June 2017 to May 2018, the Prison Reform Trust partnered with Families Outside to identify the particular impacts on children of a mother's involvement in the criminal justice system. This included a literature review and extensive consultations with 25 children and 31 mothers with lived experience. This chapter presents the main findings of the research, which identified five key themes: ‘Children with a mother in prison are invisible within the systems that are there to protect them’; ‘Every aspect of a child's life may be disrupted when a mother goes to prison’; ‘Children feel stigmatised when a mother is involved in the criminal justice system’; ‘Children affected by imprisonment face many barriers to support’ and ‘With the right support, children can become more resilient and develop the skills they need to thrive’. The material presented in this chapter constitutes a compelling case for reform. The chapter concludes with recommendations for action at local and national levels to protect children from the harm caused by maternal imprisonment.


In recent years, the topic of maternal imprisonment has experienced a significantly raised profile, generating new knowledge and understanding surrounding the impact of maternal imprisonment on mothers and their children (Baldwin, 2015, 2017, 2018; Baldwin & Epstein, 2017; Booth, 2017; Lockwood, 2017, 2018; Masson, 2019). However, the long-term impact of maternal imprisonment and subsequent resettlement, particularly in relation to maternal identity and emotion, is less well-researched or understood. This chapter, drawing on the authors research from across two projects with 46 post imprisoned mothers, highlights the significant impact, as described by the mothers, on their reintegration into their families and the persistent pains of maternal imprisonment. Mothers sometimes, decades post release, describe their ongoing trauma at being separated from their children, sometimes permanently. Those who remain in their children's lives describe how they feel ‘tainted’, ‘watched’, ‘judged’ and ‘permanently changed by their imprisonment’. For the mothers in the study who were also grandmothers, the effects appeared magnified, producing what grandmothers described as ‘layers of shame’. The chapter describes how this change, often negative perception of themselves as mothers, can interplay with mothers' ability to engage in rehabilitative processes and ultimately their desistance.

The chapter concludes with recommendations to avoid, wherever possible, the criminalisation of mothers, resulting in fewer imprisonments. In the event of imprisonment, greater consideration must be afforded to maternal experience and emotions. To maximise success, early resettlement work, starting within and continuing through the prison gates is essential. Failure to do so may impact negatively on mothers' themselves and their ability to engage in rehabilitative planning/supervision and therefore desistance, which will ultimately broaden the impact to their children and wider society.

Part II From the Margins to the Centre: Diverse Perspectives of Mothering and Imprisonment


Imprisonment has the potential to significantly impact mothering (Lockwood, 2017). For some women, imprisonment may present the opportunity to repair and rebuild fractured relationships with their children; however, for many, being separated from their children is constructed as the most difficult aspect of imprisonment (Crewe, Hulley, & Wright, 2017), with the potential to severely alter, disrupt or even terminate mothering (Lockwood, 2017; 2018). Available research highlights the importance of mothering in relation to women's adjustment to and experiences of imprisonment and upon their rehabilitation, resettlement and potential reunification (Baldwin, 2017; Lockwood, 2017, Lockwood, 2018). However, consistent with prison policy and practice, available research tends to rely on narrow definitions that often construct motherhood in relation to younger children, under the age of 18 (Caddle & Crisp, 1997). Consequently, the stories, experiences and needs of mothers in prison with older adult children often remain unheard.

Focussing on the individual stories of mothers in prison and those who have recently been released from prison, within this chapter, I consider the way in which women story motherhood in relation to older adult children. Presenting three interrelated narratives, ‘Mothering from a distance: stories of missing out on children's transitions to adulthood’; ‘“Motherwork: stories of participating in mothering adult children’ and ‘“Role reversal: stories of receiving support from adult children’, I consider the specific challenges and opportunities for mothers in prison with older adult children.


There is limited research on the mental health of pregnant women in prison in England, mother and baby unit (MBU) applications and associated factors. Eighty-five pregnant women were interviewed in eight different prisons in England, UK. Schedules for the Clinical Assessment of Neuropsychiatry (SCAN) and Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) were used to assess mental health; Severity of Dependence Questionnaire (SOD-Q) for drug misuse; Alcohol Use Identification Test (AUDIT) for hazardous drinking and the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV (SCID-II) to identify personality disorder. About 51% of participants had depression and 57% had anxiety. Those with prior social services involvement, diagnosis of personality disorder or history of suicidality were less likely to be admitted to MBUs. The high levels of depression and anxiety can have negative impacts on both the mother and her unborn child. Factors which influence MBU admission suggest those who might benefit most from MBU placement are least likely to be admitted. Other countries offer feasible alternatives to imprisonment for pregnant women and mothers which could be implemented in England.


Academic literature portrays prison officers in various ways: as insensitive figures lurking in the background (Cohen & Taylor, 1972), as brutes prone to violence (Kauffman, 1988) or more positively as noble people struggling to get the job done as best as they could (Thomas, 1972). Traditionally, the role of the prison officer is overshadowed by stereotypical views of male officers being uneducated, brutish and insensitive (Crawley, 2004a). Officers were traditionally recruited to the service from a military background, an environment that is as structured and disciplined as the working conditions in the prison service. Women have worked in the prison service for many years, although historically they were confined to administration roles and were in the main, invisible. After the passing of Peel's Gaol Act (1823), only female officers could work in women's prisons, and male governors were replaced with matrons. At the time, it was felt that female demureness, good temper and compassion would rub off on the female prisoners and that reformed prisoners would emulate their behaviour (Zedner, 1991).

In England and Wales, there is a growing body of literature related to prison officers (Arnold, 2005; Crawley, 2004a; Liebling & Price, 2001; Liebling, Price, & Shefer, 2011; Tait, 2008); however, none of this is dedicated to female prison officers. Arguably, this could be due to the fact that the profession has traditionally been recognised as a male occupation, and therefore the prison officer literature has been dominated by the thoughts and actions of men. Consequently, we know little of female prison officers' experiences of working in male-dominated, masculine organisations. In particular, we know very little about female prison officers' perspectives on gender-specific issues, such as pregnancy and motherhood while working in these institutions, either on their own or the women prisoners they work with. Drawing on qualitative research in a women's prison, this chapter will focus on female prison officers as mothers and their roles and relationships with women in prison who are also mothers. The chapter will explore how gendered experiences such as pregnancy, miscarriage, child birth and child-rearing (of both the officers and women prisoners) can create unique emotional burdens for some female officers, impacting their working role, home life and relationships with the women they work with. The chapter will go on to illustrate the ways in which these female officers manage or mismanage their emotions whilst presenting as professional in this male-dominated workplace.


The chapter centres on a practitioners' experience of supporting children affected by maternal imprisonment for over a decade in Liverpool, Merseyside in the United Kingdom.

Using the data derived from my PhD ‘Bubbles, Brick Walls and Connectivity’, I offer ‘whole families’ experiences of support systems including their experience of statutory services, nonstatutory services, family and friends and ‘Good Practice’ suggestions are proffered.

Consideration is given to what support can look like, the successes and the challenges. Attention is paid to how to help children who have contact with their mothers and how this help might differ to children for whom contact has been severed.

The chapter also focusses on supporting children and families post release and the challenges of engaging the mother in the service. Stories which highlight how the mother/child relationship can become fragmented/disrupted, either prior to or owing to imprisonment, are shared.


In recent years, academics, policymakers and activists in a number of countries have become increasingly concerned with the needs and experiences of imprisoned mothers and their children. With a few exceptions, this research has tended to focus on single jurisdictions or on limited jurisdictional comparisons. Several common themes emerge when considering international perspectives on mothering and imprisonment, but political, social, cultural, economic and penological factors mean that these issues can play out differently in different settings. Thus, in the United Kingdom and the United States, much of the debate is around keeping mothers and babies together, whereas in many other countries the focus is on the desirability of developing realistic and practical alternatives to children growing up in the prison with their mother. International organisations such as the UNCRC have considered the particular needs of children imprisoned with their mothers and also the challenges of ‘mothering from the inside’. That said, this research has tended to focus on narrow biological and gestational definitions of motherhood which may not reflect contemporary realities. With this in mind, this chapter will outline and explore international perspectives on mothering and imprisonment, identifying key issues of commonality and difference and situating these perspectives within emerging research on imprisonment, diversity and mothering.

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