Last week the Independent ran a major series of articles on the issue of incarcerated mothers, and the impact of imprisonment on their children.
I’ve always been a strong advocate of prison reform. The old saw about prison being an expensive way of making bad people worse may be a cliché, but is no less true for that. Ludicrous numbers of defendants are remanded in custody pre-trial. The social harm caused by issuing short sentences to non-violent offenders vastly outweighs any deterrent or rehabilitatory benefits,while research into the personal characteristics of prisoners confirms that, for many inmates, prison is not so much a place for punishment and correction as one checkpoint on a circuit of that begins with childhood neglect, abuse and institutionalisation and continues through mental health problems, addiction, homelessness and exploitation. Mass imprisonment is less about individual failings than a succession of social policy calamities.
So I do not oppose efforts made in the wake of the Corston Report, to overhaul policies relating to the imprisonment of women. What I ask is that the same logic be applied to the imprisonment of men. I’m very grateful that the Independent blog editors gave me the platform to make that point at length yesterday.
In that article I point out that in fact only 20% of female prisoners are resident mothers, while the many known harms caused to children of prisoners are taken from research which, overwhelmingly, relates to imprisoned fathers, not mothers. The assumption that ‘woman’ equals ‘mother’ equals ‘loving, responsible carer’ is not only inaccurate but sexist, while the implicit corollary, that male prisoners are less deserving of sympathy and compassion, is little better.
There was one other point from the Independent series which I let pass in my response piece, but frankly it has been bugging me, so I’m going to cover it here. In the piece about grandmothers left (literally) holding the baby, Paul Vallely and Sarah Cassidy note that:
“When a father is jailed, it is likely that his children will remain in their own home with their mother. But only 9 per cent of children whose mothers are jailed are cared for by their fathers. That is, in part, a reflection of the widespread dereliction of duty among many fathers.”
In the Indy leader that launched the series, the anonymous leader writer went further:
“Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.”
A staggering indictment of modern fatherhood. Really, Independent?
We know from the same article that a third of those fathers are themselves in prison. The survey which produced that statistic didn’t explain the circumstances of the other two thirds. The partners of female prisoners will very commonly share their chaotic lifestyles and troubled personal histories, so without estimating numbers, I’d bet my last penny that the various situations will include:
- Fathers who were never known or identified
Fathers who are homeless, in psychiatric institutions or dead.
Fathers who have been excluded by the mother’s choice to end the relationship.
Fathers who are violent or abusive and need to be kept away from mother and children alike.
Fathers who have abandoned their responsibilities and ‘done a runner.’
In addition, and this is a statistical equation you may need to wrap your head around, we know that mothers in a stable relationship are regularly spared custody or longer sentences by magistrates as they are considered the ‘primary carer’ of their children – even if a father is at hand. Without this mitigation, the number of women in prison would be much higher, and so too would the proportion for whom a father takes over responsibility for the kids. (To be clear, I don’t disagree with this policy, on the contrary I’d extend it to fathers and make the policy gender neutral. But it does help to explain the 9 per cent figure)
Yes, of course some of the partners of women in prison are undoubtedly irresponsible or a danger to their children. However those men are no more typical of “modern fatherhood” than the female prisoners are of “modern motherhood.” The fathers, like the mothers, are likely to be living lives that are twisted by addiction, mental health problems, tragic childhoods and all the rest. Can you imagine an Independent editorial saying: “it is a staggering indictment of modern motherhood that half the women in prison are drug addicts and two-thirds do not live with and care for their own children”? It would be crazy, suggesting that such women are somehow typical of the general population. The same assertion can be made about fathers without so much as a blink. Whatever the 9 per cent figure might tell us about prison populations, it tells us literally nothing about “modern fatherhood” far less being a “staggering indictment.”
This type of low-level casual misandry is tiresome and toxic. I believe it is also emblematic of the fundamental logical and political flaws in the debate around women’s prisons. The unthinking assumption is that a woman’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality invariably means she’s a victim of social circumstance, whereas a man’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality is a product of his personal weakness or venality. Neither assumption gives an accurate or satisfactory picture of the depressingly messy lives of prison populations, whatever the gender.