Lack of housing can lead to further problems, such as accessing children in care, health services and benefits. (Social Exclusion Unit 2002: 39) It is difficult to attend drugs programmes, education or get a job while homeless. Additionally, women with children are often in a ‘Catch 22’ situation when they leave prison: If they do not have children in their care, they are unlikely to be given priority status by housing authorities. However, if they do not have secure accommodation then their children will not be placed back into their care. (Social Exclusion Unit 2002: 140)
Debts can worsen during a prison sentence…Prisoners are released without sufficient financial means to cover the period before benefits payments are made. (Social Exclusion Unit 2002) Debts can also be incurred when ex-prisoners have to pay arrears of rent because no- one told their landlords they were in prison or because of money owing to relatives who looked after their children. Previous debts can increase while women are in prison, and as so many lose their homes and possessions while in custody, when they come out of prison they will be much poorer than before they went in.
Loss of family and friends
Lack of association in prisons has particular consequences for women prisoners, many of whom have primary care and family responsibilities. Staff and managers see it as a loss of recreation time: but it also has significant effect on family contact, because of reduced access to telephones. (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons 2004a: 38) Strong family and community ties are generally thought to be important factors in fashioning social and lawabiding behaviour, yet imprisonment usually either weakens, or puts severe strain on, ties with families and friends, while women prisoners suffer particularly from separation from their children. According to one study (Hamlyn and Lewis 2000) 66 percent of women prisoners say they have children under the age of 16. 40% of women prisoners claim that they have children under the age of 10. Yet, although there are currently five mother and baby units in the women's prisons, providing, in total, accommodation for 90 babies with their mothers, provision is not adequate to demand and babies can only stay with their mothers for a maximum of 9 or 18 months (depending on which prison they are in).When women have to be separated from their babies at 9 or 18 months, their distress is usually acute.
One Home Office (1997) study found that for 85% of female prisoners their period in custody was the first time they had experienced separation from their children for any significant period. The same study also found that only half the women who had been in contact with their children prior to their imprisonment had had a visit from them while in custody. The reasons for this are several. Some women do not want their children to see them in prison; some carers are not prepared to risk the upset caused when a child has to leave its mother at the end of a visit; sometimes the mother’s crime alienates her children (the two mothers in our study who had been convicted of murdering their children’s fathers had also experienced a complete rupture with their children); but also it is sometimes because, in England and Wales, women can be imprisoned miles from their homes and in country areas with poor transport.
In her Report for 2004, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said of visiting provision in the women’s prisons: