There can’t be many British people who weren’t totally nauseated by the “babies in cages” pictures generated by Donald Trump’s abortive crackdown on border controls.
Making children pay such a cruel price for the crimes of their parents would never happen here, we all thought. I certainly did.
But this week I had a sharp reminder that our own justice system is hardly a shining example when it comes to kids’ welfare.
On Loose Women we debated a report from the Prison Reform Trust which recommended that mothers convicted of non-violent crimes shouldn’t be jailed.
Hang on a minute, I thought. The law is the law and if you break it then – mother or not – you should pay the price. But as I learned, it’s not that simple. Because the impact on a child when a mother goes to prison can be devastating.
Did you know that 19 out of 20 children are forced to leave home when their mum is jailed?
Some are farmed out to relatives, others go into the under-funded lottery that is social services’ care. They often have to move school and are separated from the only people who understand their pain, their brothers and sisters.
While the mum is sentenced to jail, her children are sentenced to grief, trauma, poverty, bullying and shame. And that can have an effect on their health that lasts their whole life long. The Prison Reform Trust says 17,000 children a year are affected by a mother’s imprisonment, yet they are invisible and voiceless.
Kids like Paula Harriot’s. She was sentenced to eight years in prison for drug offences in 2004, of which she served four years. She has five children and when she went to jail her youngest was only nine.
Paula freely admitted her guilt. “I am ashamed of what I did,” she told us. “Looking back with the clarity I’ve got now, I can’t believe I was so dumb, but when you take drugs you just don’t think straight.”
But her jail experience was nothing compared to her children’s ordeal, she said. Her little girl came home from school one day to find her mum had gone – for four years.
And it had a terrible effect. The bond between mother and daughter was broken. By the time Paula’s girl was 18 she had two babies by an older man. Her son went to jail himself. She said: “His anger at me exploded and he got in a fight.”
When the family was reunited, Paula’s kids couldn’t even tell their mum they loved her. They did, but they also hated her, were angry with her and deeply worried for her.
As Paula says: “They suffered the stigma of being a child whose mum has gone to jail.”
So we should be glad Justice Secretary David Gauke has axed five new jails for women and will spend £5m on community support for them.
He’s admitted that the evidence shows putting women in prison can do more harm than good.
The cynic in me says it’s also very expensive.
There’s the cost of locking them up, and of caring for their children. Then there’s the cost society has to pay for the fallout of their damaged lives.
So £5million is a drop in the ocean when you think about the money saved.
But it’s a start. It’s also the humane thing to do.
Because our laws have been inflicting more damage on innocent kids than Donald Trump’s. And that’s a rep no country wants to have.
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