Prison's forgotten victims: The other side to the story

Although we do need to consider the damage to children when separated from their mothers, we shouldn't neglect the importance of both parents.

Last week The Independent shone a necessary light upon one of the most dark and depressing consequences of our retributive criminal justice system: the impacts upon the children and family of incarcerated mothers.

The emotional, physical and social impacts on a child of a parent's imprisonment are immense. When it is a mother being separated from a child, the problems are indeed often amplified hugely. But it is important to remember that statistics detailing impacts on children's mental health, offending and anti-social behaviour result, overwhelmingly, from the imprisonment of fathers, not mothers.  If 200,000 children lose a parent to custody every year, more than 180,000 of them are losing their dads. 

In truth we do not know how many men in prison have dependent children. The government does not collect statistics. Estimates from charities and government ministers seem to be plucked from the air, and can be as high as 59%. The last systematic attempt to find out was in 1991 - which found a figure of 32%. Detailed research on the situations of incarcerated fathers and the nature and extent of their involvement in their children's lives is pretty much non-existent.

We do know that being a father, even as an involved, cohabiting or married co-parent, carries no mitigation in British courts. Sentencing guidelines specify that a defendant must be “sole or primary carer for dependent relatives” for this to be relevant. In practice, magistrates and judges hold 'primary carer' in a two-parent family to mean 'mother.' The Home Office research study, Understanding the Sentencing of Women, is quite explicit that fathers are never afforded mitigation when a mother is at hand, but the reverse does not apply.

The same report explains that motherhood is by far the dominant factor in explaining why men are, on average, much more likely to receive a custodial sentence or a longer sentence for equivalent crimes. Although it is true that the female prison population has doubled in the past 15 years, in the five years since the influential Corston Report, the number of women in prison has in fact fallen by about 5%, while the male prison population has risen by around the same amount. While the situation for mothers in jail may be slowly - far too slowly - improving, the situation for fathers gets ever worse.

It would be a huge mistake to think that losing a father to prison is no big deal for a child. The reports this week have made for disturbing and difficult reading, but so too does the recent Barnardo's report into the familes of imprisoned fathers, which recounted first hand experience of the bullying, the behavioural problems, the fear, the tears and the financial problems involved. It is a grim but important document, and the title alone tells a succinct tale: Every Night You Cry.  

Of course, few men in prison could be described as “good” fathers by any objective standard. At the extreme, there are some who are best kept away from their own children or anyone else's. But then the same goes for some mothers. Male and female prison populations alike are riven with addiction, mental health problems, chaotic lifestyles and violent and abusive backgrounds and behaviour. To call upon an old cliche, prisons are largely populated by individuals who are in various ways sad, mad and bad. Yet to their children, they are simply mum or dad.

Since Corston reported in 2007, there has been a broad consensus on the reformist, liberal circles that women should be imprisoned only as a last resort for the most dangerous and serious offenders. Mothering responsibilities are cited as the central justification. And yet this week Debra Baldwin of the Ministry of Justice noted that although 60% of women in custody have children, two-thirds of those were not living with their kids when they were sentenced - this will be largely accounted for by previous interventions by social services. A quick and easy sum reveals that in fact only 20% of women in prison are resident mothers on the outside.

The assumption that woman invariably means mother, and that mother invariably means a dependable, loving carer is not only inaccurate, it is deeply problematic. It betrays patronising, patriarchal stereotypes about women's character and women's role in society, painting them as delicate, damaged creatures, a process that the feminist blogger Stavvers this week pegged as “benevolent sexism.”  The implicit corollary, that male prisoners are irresponsible thugs whose welfare, future prospects and damaged upbringings can be discounted, is no more accurate and no less damaging.    

There is a desperate, urgent need to reappraise and reform our prison system. The social and human costs upon children of imprisoning parents should be a national priority. There is overwhelming evidence that some community sentences can be vastly more effective in reducing recidivism than prison. This is true of Brighton's Inspire project for women described today, but also true of the equivalent Intensive Community Order programmes for men that are currently being piloted around the country.

There is very little that can be said of women prisoners that is not also true for many men. The problem with looking at these issues through a lens of gender rather than need and circumstance is that policies often end up benefiting those to whom they are not relevant, while neglecting others who are, on fundamentally arbitrary grounds. if as a society, we decide that incarcerating active parents is rarely worth the social and human costs, then mitigate on that basis, not on gender. If we believe a history as a victim of abuse or mental health problems should preclude custodial punishment, then stop imprisoning people who have been abused or who are ill. Gender does not need to come into it. 

In the most quoted line of her report, Baroness Corston observed that: “Women and men are different: Equal treatment of men and women does not result in equal outcomes.” This is true, but simplistic. The messy reality is that people are different. Equal treatment of any two individuals does not result in equal outcomes.  the logic which says the most appropriate treatment for one female offender is also the most appropriate for another is fundamentally flawed.  The price of that logic will be paid not just by the forgotten fathers and their devastated kids, but is handed down to us all in the social costs to every damaged generation.