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Helping prison mothers keeps their kids from crime

Programmes and facilities that assist mothers in prison to maintain their relationships with their children are necessary to help women successfully reintegrate back into society and to prevent their children from following their mothers path into offending.

Victoria University Criminology researcher, Dr Venezia Kingi, studied the children of women in prison as part of her PhD thesis. A sample of imprisoned mothers were interviewed to find out how their children were coping while their mothers were in prison. Most of the women were re-interviewed later to discover how their relationships with their children had changed.

Information of the numbers of children involved and who cares for them in the absence of their mothers is not routinely collected either in New Zealand or overseas. For Kingi the primary aim was to gather this information and her research involved women from the three New Zealand prisons; Arohata, Mount Eden Prison Women's Division and Christchurch Women's Prison.

"The results of this research confirm the findings of previous New Zealand and overseas studies which indicate that to minimise the effect of women's imprisonment on their children, imprisoned women need programmes and facilities for the maintenance of family ties. Moreover, post-release support is needed for both the women and their children".

She also asked how the situation of children with mothers in prison could be improved and her thesis identified the need to assist mothers in prison to maintain their relationships with their children during their sentence.

Kingi says that apart from policies relating to women with babies under the age of six months there are no specific policies which address the unique needs of mothers in prison or which consider the fact that they're more likely to have been their child's primary caregiver. Because they are few in number women are more likely to be imprisoned far from their homes and families which further add to the difficulties of maintaining relationship with family and friends.

The women themselves identified this problem with one saying," I don't necessarily think it's right, but in reality it's women that maintain family relationships. When a hub's pulled out the whole wheel falls apart - when a guy goes to prison the wheel keeps on turning, it's just one spoke missing."

Kingi says building more women's prisons won't address the problems of mothers who break the law. "It's clear that relationships between women, their children, partners and families can often be damaged or destroyed within a short time, due to either the separation, lack of contact or the stigmatisation of women's imprisonment."

"In terms of human costs to mothers and children alternatives to prisons are by far the most progressive options within the criminal justice system. The focus should be on strengthening at risk families instead of fragmenting them and in doing so addressing issues of re-offending and intergenerational cycles of abuse, addiction, crime and imprisonment," Kingi says.

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