The hidden victims of a lock 'em up culture


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The Independent Online

Lock 'em up and throw away the key is, sad to say, not only the right-wing populist attitude to crime and criminal justice, it sums up the attitude of much of the country. The number of people in Britain's prisons is at an all-time high, it is announced with a tedious regularity. The nation tuts and turns away. Prison itself, it seems, is an issue we should, metaphorically, prefer to lock up and throw away the key.

There are two groups who suffer most from this lack of interest. One is women. Over the past 15 years, the number of female prisoners has more than doubled, and more than 10,000 women are now sent to jail every year. The five-part investigation which begins in The Independent today explains why, and also offers some ideas of what might be done to improve the situation.

The financial cost of such a surge in prison sentences is enormous: the average bill for a woman behind bars is £56,415 a year. But the social cost is greater still. Taking mothers away from their children causes such emotional, developmental and psychological damage that it sharply accelerates the creation of the next generation of criminals. The statistics are alarming. A child with a parent in prison is three times more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviour, and three times more likely to develop mental health problems. A staggering 65 per cent of boys who have a parent in jail will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves.

Here, then, are the entirely innocent victims of the ballooning prison population. Every year, as many as 200,000 children have to cope with the consequences of a parent in prison – far more than the number who are separated by family break-up. And the ones who suffer the most are the 17,000 each year who see their mothers put behind bars. Most are inside for fewer than six months, for crimes such as shoplifting, non-payment of fines, benefit fraud and offences linked to drug addiction and sex work. But the impact of even a short sentence can be catastrophically disruptive for children who have committed no crime – and who may have already suffered disproportionately because of their drug and drink-dependent mothers' chaotic lives. The children of convicted mothers almost always move house and switch school, as well as facing the stigma and trauma of their situation.

Today, we go inside one of Britain's women's prisons and look at the advantages and shortcomings of the approach the prison service has developed to deal with the surge in numbers of female inmates. And we talk to some of the very few women who are allowed to keep their babies with them.

Over the coming week, we will lay bare the shocking truth about what happens in the majority of cases where mothers and their children are separated. We will consider the impact on the women themselves, both in and out of custody. We will look at the lives of those who are left holding prisoners' babies, or bringing up their distressed children and disturbed teenagers – a burden which mainly falls on grandmothers and other female relatives. Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.

Finally, we will turn a spotlight on the harrowing effect on the children themselves, concluding with an examination of alternatives to the current system and how workable they might be.

Being a parent cannot, of course, be a woman's "get out of jail free" card. But the fact remains that whenever a mother is locked up her child is punished too. As the prison population rises ever higher, society cannot continue to look the other way.