Motherhood in UK prisons: the devaluing of the maternal

On 8 June, Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies in collaboration with the MaMSIE research network (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics), and with support from Clinks, hosted practitioners and academics to consider the challenges that face mothers in UK prisons. PhD student Claire Horn reports on the event.

motherhood-and-incarceration

It felt fitting that this discussion fell on the day of the election. In a time characterized by media amplification of partisan debate and the claims of our political leaders, this was an afternoon to consider the voices of women that often go unheard, and to reflect on an issue that requires collaboration across political divides. Opening the event, Lisa Baraitser (co-founder of MaMSIE, with Cambridge University’s Sigal Spigel), spoke of the importance of addressing the experiences of women who parent and are in prisons as a pressing feminist issue. Setting the tone for the discussion to come, she cited the need to reflect on what incarcerating mothers does to women, to children, and to communities.

Anne Fox, Chief Executive Officer of Clinks, chaired both of the afternoon’s panels and facilitated a focused and thoughtful dialogue. Fox raised an issue in her opening remarks that was reflected again and again throughout the afternoon: as a society, we undervalue and fail to critically consider motherhood. Given this lack of attention to motherhood in general, mothers in prison are in an especially unique situation. In a culture that demonises those who have offended, they are already stigmatized. As mothers, that stigma is amplified.

The first group of panelists delved into this double de-valuing of imprisoned mothers. Naomi Delap is the direct of Birth Companions, an organisation that provides physical and emotional support to pregnant women and mothers in UK prisons. Delap spoke of the lack of basic access to care for many pregnant women, and the necessity of codifying perinatal services and support. While Delap spoke of initiatives to de-carcerate pregnant women, and provide better community services she also illustrated the need for appropriate care for pregnant women who are currently imprisoned. The Birth Charter, compiled by Birth Companions, sets out specific and carefully considered recommendations.

Laura Abbott, the second speaker of the day, is undertaking doctoral work in health research at the University of Hertfordshire on the experience of being a pregnant woman in prison. She is also a volunteer at Birth Companions, and she spoke of the vital importance of midwifery support for imprisoned pregnant mothers. Abbott shared her work on interviewing mothers and staff in prisons, and through her presentation, represented the voices of mothers who spoke of a lack of access to basic care, and also of their sense that sentencing mothers acts as a punishment to their children.

Anastasia Chamberlen, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick (and past lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck), discussed the gendered embodied experience of prison and punishment, noting the ways in which the impact of incarceration lingers in and on the body. Among other specifically gendered phenomena, she spoke of how for many women she interviewed, the period of imprisonment extended over what might otherwise have been mothering years.

In the panel that followed, Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer in Community and Criminal Justice at De Montfort University and editor of the Mothering Justice collection, spoke of the emotional impact of incarceration. Baldwin described prison as an assault on a mother’s ability to do the work of mothering. She gave the powerful example of prison visit rules that do not allow for mothers to touch or hold their children during visitation hours. As Baldwin so aptly noted, this lack of contact would be viewed as neglect outside prison walls, yet inside, it is enforced.

Shona Minson, DPhil in Criminology at Oxford University, and author of the “Motherhood as Mitigation” report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke further of the impact of maternal imprisonment on children. She described the ways in which having a mother in prison is linked to risks to children, and explained the phenomenon of “secondary criminalisation,” through which children experience the punishment and stigma of their mother’s penal sentences.

These five speakers forcefully articulated the potential impact on individual women, children, communities, and society more broadly when mothers are imprisoned. While these panelists are each engaged in the important work of addressing these issues, the concerns they raised also demonstrated the need for further support. Anne Fox closed out the event in a memorable way by asking the room (fully populated by researchers, students, activists, and practitioners) to consider questions for collaboration. Birkbeck is unique among universities in that many students and faculty are invested in producing research that bridges theory and practice. I am hopeful that this event will prompt further work in this vein, and that attendees will heed the call to communicate and collaborate.

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