Women in prison: reducing vulnerability

Liz McMahon describes the work of a unique mother and baby project in Cornton Vale Women's Prison, which external evaluation suggests is having a considerable impact on women in prison and their children.

The Aberlour Mother and Baby Project (AMBP) started its work with Cornton Vale Women's Prison (CVWP) a year ago in response to the needs of women entering the prison pregnant or with a baby under one. The women and babies identified for this service are particularly vulnerable because of numerous health and social factors. This, coupled with pregnancy or having a baby in prison, is significantly likely to increase the vulnerability of both mother and baby.

With the above in mind, and in partnership with the prison governor, Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and the funders, the Robertson Trust, we identified strategic drivers, outcomes and activities to reduce vulnerability and underpin the project.

Some of the policies guiding this work include Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC); The Road to Recovery; The Early Years Framework; and The Offender Strategy. Also, the fact that Aberlour had an existing relationship with Cornton Vale provided an opportunity to build a model of best practice relevant to the whole prison service. There was also a strong evidence base underpinning the model which could lend itself to academic evaluation and encourage national and international interest.

We proposed bringing our expertise and knowledge to help SPS achieve the nine offender outcomes relevant to enhancing integrated services for prisoners. Specifically for this proposal, outcome six aims to provide prisoners with the opportunity to maintain or improve relationships with families, peers and the community.

Recent research shows that a significant motivating factor in reducing recidivism in female offenders, who are parents, is the experience of a nurturing, positive and mutually interesting relationship with their child (Simons et al. 2005). This promotes attunement, empathetic and sympathetic emotions and lays the foundations for human learning between the parent and child (Trevarthen et al.1999).

We embedded the key principles from the SPS mother and baby strategy in the proposal:

  • An emphasis on the need for fair and equitable treatment for the children in SPS care whilst recognising the individual circumstances in each case
  • Recognition that the best interests of the child will always be the primary consideration at every level and stage of the decision-making process as well as when considering individual situations
  • When making decisions about the best interests of the child, the long-term developmental needs of the child should be considered as well as the immediate situation
  • To incorporate the principles and practice of child protection and welfare policy

The model

The service offers flexible programmes which take account of the need for consistent, responsive and nurturing care for babies and small children. The quality of the experience for every baby and child is at the centre of the work and aims to ensure the best possible interaction and engagement between the mother and baby. The work is based on cognitive behaviour and positive parenting programmes which are responsive to the parent and take into account loss, low self-esteem, substance use, transitions and boundaries. The interaction and engagement required is determined through initial screening and subsequent assessment and requires that both motivational and practical support is given.

Feedback from external evaluation

All of the women involved in the external evaluation said how valuable they had found the work on child development, as it helped them to understand their child's behaviour better. Some mentioned that they now understood that behaviour which they had previously thought was 'naughty' or deliberate defiance was actually part of a particular developmental stage, and thought they could now respond more appropriately to their children as a result. Being able to share their experiences of child behaviour, including those of the project worker and others involved in the project, helped them to understand that everyone can have problems being a parent. This helped them to feel more confident and more positive about their role as mothers.

Some women also said that, although they were already confident that they were parenting well, it had been valuable to learn that certain responses to poor behaviour could be considered as abuse or neglect. For example, they had learned that using negative or humiliating language, such as threatening to tell a child's friends that they were wetting the bed, could have a detrimental impact on their child. Understanding that these responses could be viewed disfavourably by others also helped, as it gave some of the women an insight into why they might be seen as poor parents. Knowing more about child behaviour and development could lead to them changing how they spoke to their child, but it might, in the future, also reduce the chance of a child being removed from their care.

One woman said that, before her involvement with the project worker, she thought that women in custody had no support with their children. She said that the best thing about the project was that women now had someone who could tell them about their rights as parents, help them understand the terminology used by statutory services and help them 'fight their corner'. Another said that social work staff responded differently to the project worker than they did to her, that they showed the project worker more respect and gave more weight to her opinions. Most of the women commented that the project worker always 'did what she said she was going to do', and they could rely on her to always carry out actions/find out information if she said she would do so.

They also valued the opportunity to develop a better understanding of how to communicate and play with young children, and how this can improve the bond between mother and child and promote their child's healthy brain development. They said that, on visits, interactions with their children had improved. 'Cherub' visits, where specific space is provided for family visits, were very important, as women thought that seeing their children in the visiting area, where no interaction is permitted, 'takes away your role as a parent'.

Women appreciated being able to maintain the bond with their children, particularly while preparing for release and becoming the child's primary carer again. One woman said that release can be a much more frightening prospect than coming to prison in the first place, so the knowledge they gain from participating in the project also helps them to feel more at ease about returning to the community.

The project worker has adapted to the needs of the women, for example, by developing sessions on healthy eating and the prospect of a course on handling teenage behaviour for women with older children. Women appreciate that their opinions and circumstances are taken into account, and feel valued as mothers.

The worker has also successfully engaged women who prison staff considered difficult to work with. This benefits the women themselves, but it also enables other services to be involved.

Looking ahead

The women in this project ranged from those convicted of relatively petty offences to very serious crimes. Many admitted to having had substance misuse issues. Given their backgrounds, some would argue that they have forfeited their right to be part of their children's lives. However, no matter how these women are viewed, their children have done nothing to forfeit their rights to family life and, providing any risk to the children is managed, they have a right to contact with their mother.

It is clear that the support offered by the project is having a considerable impact on both the women and their children, with strong indications that the changes made are genuine. Continuing the project will benefit not only the women and children involved, but also the majority of female offenders, their families and the wider community.

About the author

Liz McMahon has worked in the community education and social care field for more than 27 years and has been a practitioner, service co-ordinator, service manager as well as her current role as an area manager for the Aberlour Child Care Trust. In that period she has managed and developed services for children, adults, and young people covering areas such as adult education, early years, disability, youth information, counselling and advice.


Getting it right for every child implementation plan II. 2006. Scottish Executive

The Early Years Framework Part II. 2009. The Scottish Government

National strategy on offender management. 2006. The Scottish Government

Simons, R. L., Simons, L. G., Burt, C. H., Brody, G. H., & Cutrona, C. (2005). Collective efficacy, authoritative parenting and delinquency: A longitudinal test of a model integrating community- and family-level processes. Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 43(4), 989-1029.

The road to recovery: a new approach to tackling Scotland's drug problem. 2008. The Scottish Government

Trevarthen et al (1999), Meeting the needs of children from birth to three: research evidence and implications for out-of-home provision, Insight series, Scottish Executive