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18 September 2019

Blog: Let’s not rush to judgement

PRT Associate, Sarah Beresford has blogged about a new video resource which seeks to challenge perceptions about mothers who are in trouble with the criminal justice system, and which builds on our report ‘What about me?’.

Names have been changed to protect peoples’ identities.

“You can feel people judging you”, Jasmine told me, “they’re thinking, ‘she’s not fit to be a mum because she’s done time.’” These words were echoed over and over again in the focus groups and interviews we conducted for the Prison Reform Trust’s What about me? report, which revealed the impact on children when mothers are in trouble with the criminal justice system.

That report gives voice to the some of the estimated 17,240 children affected by maternal imprisonment each year in England and Wales. Children told us about the trauma of being separated from their mum; the grief and loss at her not being there; the difficulty they have in explaining her absence to others; and the disruption to almost every aspect of their lives, including housing, education, health, and well-being. They did not feel listened to, and neither their views nor their best interests were routinely considered by those in authority.

Lord Farmer’s review of women’s family relationships, published earlier this year, makes many practical proposals that could help reduce the number of children unnecessarily separated from their mother by her imprisonment. The report recommends a greater emphasis on community-based solutions which would allow women to take responsibility for their actions, whilst minimising the trauma, stigmas, and social isolation faced by children when a parent is imprisoned.

This week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights report Right to Family Life: Children whose mothers are in prison was published. It calls for a new statutory duty requiring that children’s welfare “be at the forefront of the judge’s mind” when sentencing.

These calls for reform are welcome, as there is still a long way to go, particularly for women like Jasmine who feel they are more harshly judged as mothers. Many of the women in the What about me? research felt that having children was an aggravating factor in sentencing, and many, like Mel, spoke about the judgemental attitudes of professionals and the lack of trust in them to change:

“I know they all think I’m going to be back in here as soon as I’m out; you can just tell.”

Jasmine and Mel’s words came back to me at PRT’s recent Empowering women, transforming lives conference, which celebrated the work of the Transforming Lives programme. Throughout the day, we heard from women with lived experience of the criminal justice system who have made significant steps forward and are now using their experiences to are support others and influence policy. Unlike Jasmine and Mel, these women clearly have confidence and belief in themselves, and I wanted to know: what was it that helped them turn their lives around?

It wasn’t a programme, a service, or government policy, as necessary and as helpful as those can be. Time and again, women told me that what made the difference was someone believing in them, seeing beyond the problem to their potential, and helping them to see it, and believe it, too. It was a prison officer who was positive and encouraging about Cheryl’s creative writing; it was a social worker who helped Samina engage positively with her children, even from prison; it was a link worker who took time to listen to the reason why Kim didn’t turn up for an appointment.

We need to stop seeing women in prison as problems to be solved. We need to stop asking, “What’s the matter with you?” and start asking, “What matters to you?” And we need to change our own perceptions first and see women not as ‘offenders’ but rather as women, daughters, wives, partners, sisters, friends, and mothers. Ultimately, as emphasised in this video, we need to help women turn around how they see themselves by firstly turning around how we perceive them. Only then will women like Jasmine and Mel know, and reach, their potential.

Sarah Beresford