Why are children starting their lives in prison when there are viable community solutions available to get their mothers back on track, asks Hannah Shead.
Six hundred pregnant women enter a prison every year in the UK and about a hundred babies are born inside, despite the fact that the prison environment may pose particular risks for pregnant women and unborn children.
In September 2019, a newborn baby died in HMP Bronzefield; another baby was stillborn in HMP Styal in June 2020. The Ministry of Justice does not routinely collect or publish data on miscarriages, stillbirths and neo-natal deaths so the number of deaths of babies born to imprisoned mothers may be higher.
It is well established that women rarely commit violent crimes or pose any danger to society. However despite this, the women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled between 1995 and 2010 – from under 2,000 women to over 4,000. The number has since declined but the UK is characterised as having one of the highest rates of imprisonment for women in Western Europe.
In 2018, the government published its Female Offender Strategy which sets its commitment to a new programme of work for female offenders, driven by three priorities:
- earlier intervention,
- an emphasis on community-based solutions, and
- an aim to make custody as effective and decent as possible for those women who do have to be there.
Trevi, a leading southwest women’s charity, runs a CQC registered residential rehabilitation service known as Jasmine Mother’s Recovery (formerly known as Trevi House). The centre opened in 1993 in Plymouth, Devon, as a drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation centre working exclusively with mothers and their children. Jasmine takes referrals from across the UK and can accommodate up to 12 women and their children at any time. Each mother follows a trauma informed therapeutic rehabilitation plan over an average 24 week stay. Facilities include residential rooms, family apartments, a therapy lodge and an Ofsted-registered nursery for children to be looked after during therapy times.
An expert team works with each mother to help her break her addiction for good and to be the best mother she can be. And the results speak for themselves – 98 per cent of women who go to Jasmine successfully detox and almost eight out of ten children get to stay with their mother.
Jasmine Mother’s Recovery works hard to achieve intervention as early as possible, with more mothers being admitted during pregnancy having a positive impact on outcomes.
It is recognised that a significant proportion of women who come into contact with the criminal justice system commit offences that are low-level. In some cases, their offending could have been prevented by addressing their vulnerabilities at an earlier stage. Many women offenders experience chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems, and homelessness – these are often a product of a life of abuse and trauma. Often these offenders will have repeated demands on services and go on to reoffend. Criminalising vulnerable women can make it harder for them to access routes out of the issues driving their offending, creating barriers to them finding or maintaining employment and accommodation.
Sixty-five per cent of the women who attend Jasmine Mother’s Recovery have been involved with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. A study carried out by the University of Nottingham, which looked at residents who had attended Jasmine over a ten-year period, found that their previous life experiences were extremely challenging. Such challenges included domestic abuse, childhood abuse, criminal justice system involvement, mental health service involvement, parental substance misuse, care experience (in childhood), sexual exploitation, self-harm, and suicide attempts, with almost 95 per cent of the women experiencing at least three of these.
It is for this reason that Jasmine Mother’s Recovery aims to address the underlying trauma that many women have experienced. The treatment programme has been designed to provide a wide variety of interventions, which focus on three main areas of need: parenting, addiction and healthy relationships.
Work on healthy relationships is a golden thread throughout Jasmine’s treatment programme. The centre recognises that many residents have been in previously unhealthy relationships, which may have been abusive and controlling, and that women may have challenging relationships with family members or partners. Through groups and personal work, Jasmine helps to increase residents’ awareness of their personal interactions with others, empowering them to begin to build positive relationships. The centre also seeks to improve the relationship that each woman has with herself – building self-esteem and confidence can be key to maintaining recovery.
In 2016, Trevi opened its community based Sunflower Women’s Centre offering wrap-around therapeutic support for any woman with recovery needs. Women undergoing the intensive therapeutic programme at Jasmine who decide to relocate to the city of Plymouth are encouraged to engage with Sunflower towards the end of their treatment so that they can access the aftercare available. Over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 455 women have registered with the centre.
At Sunflower the dedicated and trauma informed all-female team of support workers, therapists, teachers, and specialist practitioners work with every woman to address the trauma in her life and help her understand how it manifests so that she can begin to heal and move forward – because of this, 95 per cent of women describe the service as life-changing.
Through Trevi’s therapeutic and practical programmes, the charity helps women forge a new identity giving them a second chance at leading a good life. Simply put, for many women, Trevi is where life begins.
It makes financial sense too. For every woman who is diverted away from the criminal justice system, £60k is saved in the first year (including arrest and a female prison bed). This represents a return on investment of 99:1 (excluding childcare). For every child that remains in their mother’s care because she has been diverted away from the prison, £250k is saved in the first five years.
Earlier this year the government announced plans to invest in 500 more women’s prison places, completely contradicting its own Female Offender Strategy. In response, 70 charities including Trevi came together to say no to the women’s 500 extra prison places and urge that community solutions are considered instead.
Mel’s story: ‘I was given an opportunity’
‘I went to prison for 16 weeks and I was pregnant then. I used to go shoplifting to get the money to buy drugs. It was the easiest way to get the money at the time. It was not a nice experience – it’s scary going to prison but I would rather have gone to prison than to have been out there with my addiction. When I came out, I relapsed straight away. I knew I wanted to stop but I just couldn’t. As soon as I was out it was just constantly on my mind.
‘There was no support put in place for me when I left prison. I stopped offending for a while but then my ex got out of prison, and I got done for shoplifting again. If I didn’t have nappies, then I would shoplift nappies.
‘I have experienced domestic violence, addiction and trauma. Sometimes you just think it’s part of the addiction to have that stuff but it’s not. You learn at Trevi that it’s not right. Just because addicts have had a bad life, it doesn’t define you. You have the courage to change if you want to.
‘Trevi has been completely different to prison. Here, I have got my son with me. I’ve got life to look forward to. Whereas in prison, it’s one day after another, just waiting to get out to go and use. In prison there’s no help.
‘In Trevi there’s support, there’s staff and people that actually care about you and want you to do well. People need that opportunity; if they don’t, then they just feel like they are in a dump and they can’t get out. If you are given an opportunity, you can start seeing the light, seeing that you can change and make a difference. And that you can be a mum.’