When a mum goes to jail

Changing the prison system for mums and their kids

The situation is bleak and confronting: a woman goes to jail, often for a victimless crime, and leaves a family at home, her children either looked after by a relative or in foster care. Once that step is taken, a whole range of possibilities – only some of them good – can follow, but most of them are about the emotional and even physical distance between the kids and their mum.

Professor Susan Dennison, Griffith University

The hard reality of this scenario is underlined by the simple statistic that there are 60 per cent more families with a mother in prison than there was 10 years ago. It is a compelling case for exploring just how well our prison system copes with the challenge of supporting a mother in the prison system and her children outside it.

Now, a new research project at the Griffith Criminology Institute, at Griffith University - in partnership with Queensland Corrective Services - is set to tackle the problem in depth. The Transforming Corrections to Transform Lives project aims to arrive at a new model that can provide meaningful support for mothers in prison and their children. The project, which is supported by a grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, chimes with the Foundation’s priorities of trying to break the cycle of disadvantage. For Professor Susan Dennison who is leading the project, the research is a way to help make a difference to how women and their children experience the prison system and potentially help them find a way to a better family future.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to really do a stocktake on how the correctional system is and isn’t working for mothers and their children,’’ she says.

“We want to identify where the potential is for mothers and their children to be falling through the cracks…, and try to understand where those gaps are, what programs support doesn’t exist…and where programs do exist how do we ensure that mothers are able to access those kinds of programs and get what they need out of them.’’

The project capitalises on Queensland Corrective Services’ newly established Women’s Estate, representing the department’s commitment to reform service delivery for women. It recognises that incarcerated women have different life trajectories to male prisoners, and they are changing the way that it manages women prisoners, taking a trauma-informed approach with the goal of reducing further offending and breaking the cycle of intergenerational offending.

It is hoped the research will help identify better ways to support women during and after incarceration and mothers in prisons engaged with their children to improve long term outcomes. The project’s next step will involve working, through a process of co-creation, with mothers in prison, families with lived experience, Queensland Corrective Services and a range of NGOs already in the field, to try to redefine the current way of operating and to identify and develop new programs that could help. This will involve addressing the multiple challenges that mothers bring with them to prison, those that occur because of the prison environment, and those that they are likely to face after their release.

As a penetrating insight into how families cope with a parent in jail, few are more valuable than the comment one women made about her family’s experience of prison during an earlier piece of Prof Dennison’s research: “It’s not the way to live, but it’s the way we live.’’

“It reflects what many families who struggle with incarceration know - that they don’t have the ideal life or the life they thought they might have but they’ve made certain decisions along the way and they’re going to work with those decisions,’’ Prof Dennison explains.

“’This was the partner I chose; I made a promise to my kids that we’d stay together, or I’ll help them have that contact’. That’s their choices: they’re tied to the criminal justice system for a time and that time might be a cycle that they spend the next 20 years going through as well. And a lot of them have this twinge that I wish my life didn’t look like this, but it does, and I just have to make the best of it.’’

Prof Dennison adds, “It’s important to recognise that many of these families and parents in prison feel very alone in making choices about staying connected, in deciding who to tell, or in trying to find support. And for most families, this happens against a backdrop of serious disadvantage, which only reduces their ability to buffer children from the adverse effects of having a parent in prison. For many mothers and children, the right kind of support just isn’t there, it’s too hard to find, it’s too short term, or there isn’t enough of it”.

That dilemma of staying connected comes with particular difficulties for mothers who are sent to jail. While specific data on the number of mothers in the nation’s jail is not known, estimates show more than half of the incarcerated women have children aged 15 or younger. It’s also known that 85 per cent of women going to prison have been pregnant at some stage.

Putting aside for a moment all the emotional challenges, there are practical considerations that can stall a mother intent to maintain the relationship with their child - it can take several weeks to have a child’s telephone number registered with the prison, for one. Or the child may be in foster care that is several hours away from the prison. Or there may not be an adult who is willing or able to bring the child to visit their mum.

And then there are the emotional difficulties, one of which is deciding if visiting the prison is going to be in the best interests of their child. “This is what a lot of mums struggle with – I really want to see my child but I don’t want to make this worse for my child than it already is,’’ Prof Dennison says. “So they say: “I’ll just talk to them on the ‘phone.’ Having their child turn up, having a hug with them is just incredibly emotional for the mum and the child so there in a ‘no win’ situation whatever they decide to do there. But we know from research that having visits is beneficial for mums and their children, as long as those visits provide lots of opportunities for positive interactions and experiences.’’

“Many women disconnect from being a mother in prison because it’s too hard…the emotional toll on them is just too hard to manage, and they kind of put that mother identity off to the side and say ‘I’ll resume that when I get back out’. But of course, depending on how long they’re in for, that impacts on their relationship with their child and impacts on their growth as a parent as well.’’

The other side of the program is looking at children, independent of their mothers in some instances. “We are interested in supporting children, whether these children are going to live with their mothers, have some form of contact, or cease contact with their mothers,” Prof Dennison says. “These are children who are also at risk of having poor outcomes and having a lot of doors closed on them…I think we have a greater understanding now of the inter-generational risk for ongoing disadvantage that having a mother in prison presents for children as well.’’

“Most of these kids don’t go to prison but we do know that it does increase the risk so we need to understand why some children manage to avoid it while others end up on the same pathway,’’ she says. “And I think a lot of that is around the children who are most at risk don’t get the kind of support they need early in life. And that’s part of what this project is about too.’’

Central to the project is the understanding that prison is an artificial environment where it becomes extremely difficult to maintain and nourish relationships between an incarcerated mum and her children. “We’re going to be looking at the whole gamut – how can mums actually nurture relationships while they’re in prison so that they aren’t starting from scratch when they come out and the children can feel they still have a connection with their mother while their mother’s in prison,’’ Prof Dennison says.

There are challenges for Prof Dennison and her team to develop their own relationships with those women who are at the heart of the project because many of them are wary of trusting others and have histories of victimisation and trauma. But Prof Dennison believes, at its core, the project is about recognising the importance of hope, and then providing the right programs and support along the way to help mothers and their children reach their goals.

“It sounds very optimistic but I think that’s what it’s about it…that essentially for these women it’s about having hope and to have someone help them navigate their way through that to make genuine progress because they’ve had a lot of people ignore them in their life and make empty promises and a lot of people who have made them feel not worth it,’’ she says. “But they are the key to helping us develop a better system so that they and their children can thrive”.

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