Prison may or may not work for its inmates, but it seems unreasonable to suppose that it works for their children. Most of the women sent to British prisons – often for relatively minor, non-violent offences – are mothers, and, thus, some 17,000 children a year are victims of a criminal justice system that fails to take into account their needs and likely fates. No Sure Start programme in the world can compensate for the loss of a parent in this way, and the loss of maternal love and care is too often followed by homelessness and the uncertain comforts of the care system.
This is a question of equality as well as justice, as it is women who are indirectly but devastatingly discriminated against and damaged by our willingness to incarcerate mothers who are really more wayward than evil. It is worth mentioning too, that the custodial sentences they suffer are made all the harder to endure through separation from their children – a peculiar form of torture that seems to be inflicted all too readily and unthinkingly by the authorities.
Long after their sentences are over, as for other, male, criminals, the stigma lingers and the chances of ever remaking a life and going straight are much diminished. Even for those suitably chastened by the experience, making good afterwards is a difficult challenge.
The cost of imprisonment for the woman, the cost of care for the child, and the blighted life opportunities for both are inevitably going to be far in excess of the likely cost of the initial offence in cases such as fencing or shoplifting, to take a couple of typical misdemeanours.
Society does have a right to be protected and for justice to be done, including custodial sentences; but the courts should be made think about alternatives to custody for less serious offences. The obvious answer is to ask judges to make sure they take into account all the family circumstances of those who stand before them for sentencing.
In England and Wales, at least, there is a legislative requirement for the Government to consider the plight of female prisoners as a whole. The Secretary of State for Justice is obliged, under the Offender Rehabilitation Act passed last year, to identify and address the specific needs of women offenders. On the “Nixon Goes to China” principle, the present incumbent, Michael Gove – not noted for liberal sensitivities – is in an excellent position to introduce a more effective regime on prisons that should also prove cost-effective and, most importantly, reduce rates of recidivism. In the case of mothers, it should diminish a cycle of socio-criminal deprivation that simply creates a new generation of children accustomed to the idea of jail and crime as a way of life.
Mr Gove has already shown, true to form, a refreshing ability to think radically and imaginatively, and to take on vested interests in the wider public interest. Though he may not be flattered by the comparison, this was the approach made in what seems like ancient history by the then shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe, when she made a memorable speech at the Conservative conference extolling the virtues of putting prisoners to work and study rather than rotting in their cells for 23 hours a day (though her record in office as prisons minister was more mixed).
Reconciling the Tory instincts of retribution and the efficient operation of a public service, which is what the criminal justice system actually represents, is a challenge Mr Gove will relish. If he shows anything like the same appetite for prison reform as he has for schools reform then he may do some good.Reuse content