Special Independent investigation: Women in prison

Mothers & prison: Imprisonment separates around 17,000 children from their mothers every year

The second part of our week-long investigation counts the cost: in human suffering, and in terms of damage to the next generation

Vicky's children are acting up. That is hardly surprising, since they only see their mother once every three or four months. "They have gone off the rails," she says. "They've been bunking off school. One was taken to the local hospital A&E department after too much alcohol. They are lashing out."

When Vicky talks about the local hospital she means one in Truro in Cornwall. But she lives four hours drive from there because she is halfway through a two-year sentence in the women's prison at Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire.

Long-distance parenting from prison is not good for either a mother or her children. Vicky has two boys, aged 12 and 13, who live with their father. The relationship is complicated by the nature of her offence. "My crime was against him. He was violent for years and eventually I stabbed him," she says. Her case is not so unusual as might be thought. Over half the women in British prisons are victims of violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.

That may explain the questions her sons ask. "They write to me and ask: 'Do they hit you in prison? Do you get beat up? Do they treat you badly?'" she says, sitting in a spartan association room at Eastwood Park. "I only see them every three or four months. It's an eight-hour round trip and costs £130 in diesel. I can't expect that every fortnight. Their father can't afford it. I don't mind; if he spent the money on that the boys would have to do without something else".

It also explains something else. During their sentence 45 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families, and many separate from their partners. That has wide repercussions because statistics show that family support significantly reduces a woman's chances of returning to jail. Government figures reveal that the chances of reoffending are 39 per cent higher among those who have not received visits whilst in prison compared to those who have.

But maintaining contact with children is made more difficult because women prisoners are held, on average, 55 miles from home. Some 700 of the 4,144 female prisoners who were in prison in England and Wales last week are held over 100 miles from their children.

Separation can cause long-term emotional, social, material and psychological damage to children. They have committed no crime and yet they suffer for the crimes of others. Children of prisoners have three times the mental health problems of children in the general population. Academics at the Centre for Social and Educational Research in Dublin found children of prisoners suffer depression, hyperactivity, and behave badly with their carers in their parents' absence while becoming shy when visiting a parent in prison.

Other studies show that the problems are more severe when it is their mother – rather than father – who is imprisoned. "However bad a mother has been," says the psychotherapist Tessa Baradon of the Anna Freud Centre, who devised the parenting programmes in use in many British prisons, "it is rare that a child will feel more relief than loss when their mother goes to prison."

Yet despite all these indicators, prison regimes make it hard for mothers to maintain, or in many cases to establish, good relationships with their child. That problem begins the day they are convicted, as the case of Amina shows.

The 27-year-old was caught with cannabis in her coat pocket when visiting her husband in prison. She was found guilty of "intent to supply" and jailed for six months. She had expecting to be bailed while social services compiled reports but the judge sent her straight to Peterborough prison, 90 miles from the nursery where she had left her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Selina in London.

"I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to her. It breaks my heart to think about it," says Amina, close to tears at the memory.

With Amina behind bars social workers were left to find someone to care for her daughter. Selena was eventually taken in by Amina's brother and sister-in-law. The process is not automatic. A family support worker has to do risk assessments. One in seven women has a problem ensuring their dependent children are looked after when they are taken into custody, according to Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons.

Once inside, women have to confront the problem of prison visits. Amina wanted to arrange for her daughter to visit as soon as possible. "I felt strongly that it was most important for me to see my daughter to maintain her bond with me," she says. But her social worker vetoed the visit until she had done a risk assessment. "Those first two weeks were the longest and most difficult of my life. I'd been to prison before – I got four years when I was 21 and served two. I wasn't that close to my family and I really didn't feel like I was missing out. But the second time I was a mum and it was totally different. It was much harder."

It was 10 weeks before the child was able to visit, with bureaucratic delays exacerbated by Amina being ill. When the first visit came, she recalls, "I was really happy to see her but I don't think she recognised me. It was very hard for me to see her closer to my sister-in-law than to me."

Each year around 17,000 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment. In 2010, the figure was at least 17,240.

But only half of the women who were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment will receive a visit once in prison, according to government figures.

Why is this? Some women choose not to tell their children they are in prison, resorting instead to elaborate tales about how they are in hospital, in the Army or working away from home. Some jailed mothers decide that prison is not an appropriate place for their children, others that visits will be too upsetting for both parent and child.

Many are defeated by the practicalities of prison visits. Distance is a big factor. Visiting hours are often scheduled for when children should be at school. Weekend visiting is rare. Some children cannot visit because they have no adult who will accompany them. And prisons are generally not child-friendly places.

"Typically, children wait for 30 to 60 minutes in a visitation area with little to do before being called for a 20-minute visit in a crowded noisy room," says Dr Joseph Murray of Cambridge University's psychiatry department. "To enter, children might have to pass through a locked door, pass a metal detector, be sniffed by dogs, and sometimes be searched. Children can be scared of these procedures and the officers who enforce them.

"In many prisons, inmates are restricted to their seat (which is bolted to the floor) during visitation, and sometimes physical contact between prisoners and visitors is prohibited. Normal visitation environments do not facilitate the close contact that could reassure children".

In addition women receive only half as many visits as men prisoners do, seemingly because male prisoner's wives make more effort to maintain relationships than the partners of jailed women do. "A man in prison will look after himself," says Martin Narey, a former head of the Prison Service, "whereas a woman is still focused primarily on others, worrying and agonising about the kids she's left behind or her partner."

"There is generally a very high level of unidentified distress among women in prison," says Nick Hardwick. "Women in prison have different relationships with their family than men. These range from all the issues surrounding pregnancy and mothers and babies in custody, to the disruption of many women's role as the primary carer when they are taken into custody, to contact with family once a women is in prison. These issues are vastly different in type and scale to those experienced by men."

The Prison Service has made some acknowledgement of that. Its rules now call on prisons not to limit the number of children at each visit. It instructs guards to allow women to hug their children during visits and allow small children to sit on their laps. It recognises that children can find visits frightening, boring or confusing. But prisoners, charities and campaigners say the application of these rules in prisons can be very patchy.

"Visiting is very unsatisfactory," says Vicky in Eastwood Park. "The room is too full. You have to sit at a table with a chair at each side. You can't leave the chair to go to your child. They can't sit on your lap. Hugs are counted as excessive contact. You feel constantly watched and overheard."

The seven children of Martha, recently discharged from Bronzefield prison in Sussex, had to take it in turns to visit their mother. "You are only allowed three visitors at a time so they had to take turns. It was a difficult journey for them but they came to visit quite a bit."

Prison visits take place in a very artificial environment, says Sarah Salmon of the charity Action for Prisoners' Families. "Often by the time they are just getting relaxed the time is up," she says. "There is no privacy. So it is hard to talk about the problems they are having. Or about the crime they committed which can be like the elephant in the room.

"Visits can be only two every 28 days which is not much to maintain a parent-child relationship.

"If a visit goes badly it can end up leaving the prisoner and her family in a worse state. They lie in their cell and worry about their children, what they are doing, how they are behaving, what they are eating..."

It's even harder to maintain a relationship with kids between visits. The women can buy phonecards so they can call home and talk to their children. But payphone charges are high and the women don't earn much from prison wages. So they can't talk for as long as they want, or sometimes need. There is often a queue for the phone on the prison landing.

There are no mobiles so there's no texting. In some prisons you can email a prisoner but they can't email back. Prisoners just get a stamp for one letter per child per week.

"It can be a real struggle," says Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, "trying to parent by phone, trying to remind their kids of day-to-day stuff like 'Don't forget to go to the dentist'." There is another problem. When prisoners behave badly in prison one of the sanctions governors use it removing visiting rights.

"Losing visits as a punishment is wrong," she adds. "It penalises the children, who are innocent parties and who look forward to these visits. And visits help maintain family links, which reduces reoffending."

But the experience can be improved. At Eastwood Park the prison's mother and baby unit has four family days each year. "My kids came up for one recently," says Vicky. "I was nervous. I hadn't seen my kids for five months and, even though I ring them once a week, you worry how it's going to be. But it all flowed straight back to normal. It was brilliant. We were able to spend the day doing things together, decorating biscuits, doing arts and crafts, cooking a meal. The staff were amazing we were allowed to interact normally, talking, laughing and with plenty of hugs. And I had a good talk to them about them going off the rails, bunking off school and all the rest. Things improved enormously. And their school reports have got better."

A report by the Howard League for Penal Reform last year concluded that the children of prisoners are suffering unnecessary long-term harm. "Many initiatives have been launched to try to limit the damage to children of those in jail but they have not worked," says the League's chief executive Frances Crook. Family visiting days like Vicky's are likely to be scrapped due to budget cuts. "The damage we're doing to the next generation is enormous".

Another report, by the charity Barnardo's, spells that out. "Children who have a parent in prison are three times more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour," it reveals. "Statistics indicate that children of prisoners are more likely to be incarcerated in adulthood than other children.

"This finding, coupled with research showing that positive family relationships can help reduce prisoner reoffending, highlights the importance of working with parents within the prison system to break this cycle... It is vital that the needs of prisoners' children are addressed."

"Visits are emotionally very draining," says Vicky. "I break down when my kids have gone. I know why I am in here. But my children didn't do anything wrong. Why should they be punished? Because they are being."

The names of the prisoners and their children have been changed.

Tomorrow: The grandmothers left holding the babies

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