Challenges of Being a Mother in Prison: Essay

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Being a mother in prison is not easy. Mothers in prisons face challenges that many members of the public are unaware of, challenges that affect both themselves and their children's well-being and upbringings. What challenges do these mothers face and why is this topic important to discuss?

Why Is This Topic Important?

Within the criminal justice system, women are seen as the least likely gender to be incarcerated, unlike males who hold most prison populations. However, throughout the years as women have been given more rights within societies and both genders got closer to having equal roles, the rise of female criminality is on the rise. Due to this, more facilities for females have had to be produced, but still do not meet the requirements to fulfill the needs of female prisoners, in particular mothers.

The Right to Abortion

Abortion rights came into place in 1997. Abortions were banned before the 1967 Abortion Act, which allowed them to be performed up to 28 weeks after conception. In 1990, this was lowered to 24 weeks, which gave women the decision in terminating the pregnancy as their own choice, giving them the right to decide what was right for them (Francombe, 2017). However, this right is not always as easy for women incarcerated in prisons, outlining one of the many challenges these women endure. On average, 6-10% of women in custody are pregnant at any given time, this is a significant problem, and research by renowned political scientist Rachel Roth (2010) found that correctional facilities' abortion policies are inconsistent and lack any form of standardization (Sufrin, Creinin, and Chang, 2009). As a result, jailed women encounter a variety of obstacles in their quest for a pregnancy abortion. Due to these women having a constraint on their freedom due to incarceration, abortion requests are at the discretion of prison staff, who can deny their requests at any time. Women who seek abortions may be turned down by facilities that distinguish between 'essential' and 'non-essential' dependent on whether the pregnancy has any risks (Sufrin, Creinin, and Chang, 2009). This outlines one of the challenges mothers in prison face as legalized acts such as abortion are denied at the request and decisions are not just of the mothers but those working within the prisons. It also provides evidence that change needs to occur as the treatment of women within prisons is inadequate.

Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

According to research, jailed mothers experience higher stress than other convicts due to concerns about visitation and separation from their families. Pregnant convicts are at a higher risk of anxiety and depression. The mother's anxiety and sadness can have a harmful impact on the infant's development by raising the infant's susceptibility to psychopathology. Stress within pregnancies can be harmful to the child, “Antenatal psychosocial stress is common, and elevated levels are associated with maternal factors known to contribute to poor pregnancy outcomes” (Woods et al., 2010). However, these pregnant women are in prison custody of the child is taken away from them, leaving them knowing full of the upcoming separation of themselves and their child, causing these masses of stress and anxiety. Women who give birth while in prison spend roughly a day or two with their newborns before the babies are taken away. This separation and loss, according to Hutchinson et al. (2008), is likely to be emotionally difficult and may even be a traumatic experience for many women. When the mother and infant are reunited, the initial trauma may make it impossible for the mother to reconnect with their child, damaging the motherly relationship that is essential for a child's proper upbringing.

The Child of an Incarcerated Mother

The life of a child can be jeopardized while a mother is imprisoned. According to research, just 5% of children with a mother in prison remain in their family home during their mother's prison sentence, with only 9% of these youngsters being cared for by their fathers. Furthermore, around a fifth of mothers are single parents while they are incarcerated. This leaves approximately 6,000 children in the care of other family members or friends with an estimated 12% entering the foster care system (Hamlyn and Lewis, 2000). In most areas, prisons try to keep inmates close to their families, but because there are so few jails that can accommodate women, female inmates are significantly more likely to be separated from their families. Therefore, visitation may become much more difficult as a result of this and limits the number of visits the mother has from her child.

Treatment of Women

The female population of prisoners is much lower than the number of men, and routine medical checks that are offered outside of prison are inadequately offered within the criminal justice system, therefore these women receive almost no medical care. For example, mammograms, pelvic examinations, and other procedures specifically for women are not available in most prisons, which on the outside world would be offered as a routine check, and should be continued within prisons as standardized procedures. In many cases, women in jail may be subjected to sexual abuse or assault by correctional personnel or other convicts. Female prisoners have been raped, touched, or abused by various forms of sexual coercion, according to research. Fear prevents many of these incidents from being reported (Macdonald, 2013).

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Many studies focusing on the treatment of women within prisons are conducted by feminists. In particular, Carlen and Worrall (2013) completed research analyzing women's imprisonment that outlined issues and challenges women endeavor during their time incarcerated. Within their studies, they focus on why and how female prisoners are treated differently from male prisoners, as well as prison design and its effects on females. Carlen and Worrall (2013) examined how female inmates are treated differently than male inmates, but not always in ways that benefit them. Carlen (2021) recently remarked that, even though many female inmates are regarded as men, their jail experiences are significantly different from those of male inmates. There are just 14 female jails compared to 139 male prisons (Carlen and Worrall, 2013). As a result, female jails are distributed throughout. This has several drawbacks, the most serious of which is that family contact may be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, if the families are impoverished, as travel costs and time are not readily available to visit the female. 'Prisonisation', according to Carlen and Worrall (2013), is a major element in women's incarceration. They feel that jails and prison systems are designed to meet the demands of men and are ill-equipped to meet the requirements of women. They also looked at how women adjust to jail in a bad way compared to men, as well as whether their behavior inside is a result of the regime's and prison's culture. In contrast to the earlier point of prisonisation, Carlen and Worrall addressed the idea that women can and do fight aspects of the experience of imprisonment by performing roles such as using femininity as a tool to counter prison life (Carlen and Worrall, 2013).

One-way female prisoners can be helped is by creating prisons that are centered on women. Arguments have been made that 100% female prisons, with 100% female staff, would eradicate gender prejudice and provide a better knowledge of the requirements of female convicts. Females are severely underrepresented in jail officer grades, according to researchers such as Liebling (2001), just as they are in the police force. They discovered that only 17% of prison officers were female, with 10% of senior officers and 7.5% of principal officers being female. Cross-gender communication is one of the concerns with female jails being overrun with male prison staff. Some female convicts may not feel comfortable telling male officers about their concerns, resulting in a sense of being 'locked up' and a build-up of frustration.

Why and How Things Should Change?

Due to the recent pandemic COVID-19, caused huge pressure on the criminal justice system as contact between mothers and their children, in many cases new-borns, came to a halt, as a result of the pandemic restrictions. The Guardian (2020) announced that only 24 females were released from prison under a prison scheme, allowing new mothers and pregnant women to be released as they neared the end of their sentence, despite there being an average total of 17,000 mothers in prisons.

According to Baunach (2020), the government intends to tackle the issues that come with mothers and pregnant women being incarcerated. These issues are highlighted throughout this paper. They are aiming to do this by:

  • Considering temporary release from prison of mothers who have dependents and also pregnant females that are deemed as low risk to society, for example, those who have committed blue-collar crimes.
  • Allowing visitation rights for children to their mothers in a more natural environment within the prison, such as a normal seating area.
  • Completing yearly census to get accurate figures of the number of female inmates that have dependents.
  • Correct prenatal care for pregnancies within prisons to ensure no harm is bought to the mother or the child.
  • Pregnancy tests of offenders before being incarcerated to reduce the likelihood of an unknown pregnancy.
  • All female prisons, reducing gender prejudice and making it a more comfortable environment for prisoners and staff.

Why Do These Changes Need to Happen Now?

In 2019, it was reported that a pregnant female in a prison located in Surrey gave birth to her child within her prison cell completely unaccompanied by any medical professionals, resulting in the death of the newly born child (Armstrong, 2020). It was discovered after multiple investigations that the stillbirth of the child was due to errors made by nurses and medical assistants within the prison and no CPR was performed to revive the newborn. The mother and prison were unaware of the pregnancy, however, had she been given the correct examinations, this would have been discovered. Following the birth, prison staff were leisurely phoned for an ambulance, and due to this, it was too late for any care for the baby to be given, however, if medical assistance was asked for immediately, the baby could have survived (Armstrong, 2020).

This outlines the reasons why these changes need to occur, and if these changes do occur, mothers in prisons will face far fewer challenges and prisons will have a less negative impact on the well-being of themselves and their children. These mothers will be less likely to have severe mental illnesses such as depression, and the child will be less likely to suffer the consequences of not having their mother present in their lives.

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Challenges of Being a Mother in Prison: Essay. (2023, December 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
“Challenges of Being a Mother in Prison: Essay.” Edubirdie, 08 Dec. 2023,
Challenges of Being a Mother in Prison: Essay. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 May 2024].
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