Opinion

My children didn't understand why mummy was in prison

Mothers in prison have to accept they can't be there for their children. And the guilt brings unbearable pain, says former inmate Racy Jackson

Teddy Love, HM Prison & Young Offender Institution New Hall, mixed media from Koestler Arts’ My Path exhibition

Teddy Love, HM Prison & Young Offender Institution New Hall, mixed media from Koestler Arts’ My Path exhibition

Prison is a scary place at the best of times, but the impact of the prolonged prison lockdown has been felt more acutely by women (often primary carers) who had to have their physical contact with children suspended.

According to the Ministry of Justice around 80 per cent of the more than 3,000 women in prison have been convicted of a non-violent offence, and pertinently around 17,000 children are separated from their mothers every year by imprisonment.

Video calls were introduced further into the lockdown – but they are still too often fragmented by poor-quality connections and technical hitches.

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I was a mother in prison and I know how painful it is not being able to comfort your children and keep them safe. I dread to think how that must be now for so many mothers behind bars today.

Being in prison away from your children and the guilt that goes along with the impact your actions are having on their lives is horrendous. The younger they are the harder it is for them to understand why mummy isn’t there. Add to that the impact of the pandemic and it must be even harder not to crumble under the weight of worry, fear, guilt and not seeing them – and then also wanting to see them but not wanting to expose them to the virus.

Outside at least you can attempt to help them, inside you just feel so bloody useless

The biggest thing I think is all that extra time behind the cell door to think about it all. It’s really frightening to think of how your kids are coping with not seeing grandparents, or living with grandparents. Not going to school, the education they’re missing and the effect that will have on them. Outside at least you can attempt to help them, inside you just feel so bloody useless.

Regimes have been massively reduced also by staff sickness during the pandemic. Not being allowed out of your cell long enough for phone calls and showers is hellish. Like any women, those in prison pride themselves on personal hygiene. That must be just dreadful.

Add to all of this the constant fear that you’re going to catch the virus from a staff member who has inadvertently brought it in with them and that you may never see your family again – well it’s a recipe for emotional meltdown, frayed tempers and an utter loss of hope. The voices of the ‘keep them locked in’ posse have been heard loud and clear from various quarters. Views that are archaic, to say the least, in 2021.

A wise man once told me that “one day people in prison will be let out and may be your next-door neighbour”. Well we should be thinking about this now. The consequences of how we have treated all prisoners during this pandemic, not just women, will surely be evident in the coming years.

Racy Jackson, (a nom de plume), is a former prisoner who served more than 20 years of a life sentence

This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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