Prison is an institution defined by its own ideology. There are
no concessions to the government’s anti-ideology mantra of “what
works”, “joined-up government” or “evidence-based policy”.
The classic case exposing the chasm between propaganda and good
practice is the treatment of mothers. Prisons confirm stereotypes
about gender: men’s offences are seen as manifestations of
masculinity such as violence or robbery. While the reason for
women’s presence in prison is because their offending, irrespective
of the crime, is seen as an offence against their gender, which is
supposed to make them passive and law abiding.
Traditionally, staff were fatalistic about male prisoners and
fatherhood – as if men didn’t want to know their children or were
merely like visitors to their families. But the Prison Service has
improved men’s access to their children, not least in the hope that
fatherhood might tame their lawless tendencies.
Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers, most for drug related
offences. Typically, women are in prison for “survival crimes” or
for trafficking offences – as drug mules, say – that are often
produced by their subordination to men.
In the past, there seemed to be a prevailing notion in the Prison
Service that mothers in jail so transgressed their femininity that
they forfeited their rights and responsibilities as mothers.
Nothing illustrated this better than the plight of mothers and
toddlers: babies being allowed to stay with their mothers in prison
but then arbitrarily evicted at 18 months, or when Home Office
minister Anne Widdecombe sanctioned the shackling of a woman to her
hospital bed when she was giving birth.
The Prison Service does not have a statutory duty to provide for
mothers and children. But the necessity of provision has forced
itself on the prison agenda in the wake of the huge rise in women’s
But there is no mother and baby unit for women in open prisons in
southern England or anywhere in Wales (though women may choose to
remain in Holloway, where there is provision). The mother and baby
unit at Askham Grange, the open prison near York, is 200 miles away
from the homes of most of the women incarcerated there, and
therefore from their relatives who, in most cases, take over
responsibility for their children. A child might remain with her or
his mother – but only until 18 months.
The crisis in the system’s attitudes was eloquently exposed in an
Appeal Court judgement in 2001 supporting a mother’s campaign to
have care of her baby at Askham Grange. The mother was black, the
baby was black, the mother did not want the child restored to her
own community – and thus to the criminal context – but there was no
black foster care available in the mainly white North Yorkshire
The judgement by the master of the rolls, Lord Justice Justice
Brooke, and Lord Justice Hale noted an independent social worker’s
observation that the mother and child were well bonded, and that
the separation at 18 months was an “unnecessary cruelty”.
Although the Children Act 1989 provided a guide to the mother as a
safe carer, it did not apply to the Prison Service. Askham Grange
did, however, concede the act’s principle of the paramountcy of the
child’s best interests.
However, having done so, the Appeal Court ruled the prison was
obliged to fulfil its promise. Since then the Prison Service has
increased and reformed provision: there are many more places, new
units are promised, and in some circumstances a woman may go out to
work while her child is looked after; where possible units are to
be organised separately from the main prison as a “village
community”. But access remains arbitrary.
The crisis that women’s imprisonment creates for their children
throws light on a larger argument: far from women’s offending
representing the ultimate transgression, it should be seen as more
typically a function of the female condition. This ought to prompt
the question: is prison the place to put them? And if prisons are
beginning to concede the paramountcy principle, if only as a
rhetorical gesture to ward off criticism, shouldn’t that principle
be the guide to what loss of liberty may – and may not – mean for
mothers and their dependants?
Instead of mothers being the exception, perhaps their experience
should be the exemplar for the reform of the criminal justice
system for both genders.
Beatrix Campbell is a writer and