Motherhood, mothering and the Irish prison system

O'Malley, Sinead Mary
While there have been some recent reflections on the Irish experience of supporting mothers facing adversity, there remains a dearth in research exposing the voices of vulnerable and marginalised mothers. This is undoubtedly the case for incarcerated mothers in Ireland. While there has been some recent scholarly and advocacy attention regarding imprisoned women, which by default recognises the challenges faced by imprisoned mothers and their children, this well-intentioned discourse is often based on outdated, estimated or international research. Moreover, it is frequently without the involvement of the mothers themselves nor does it place the maternal voice as central to the journey through the various criminal and social justice systems. Finally, Ireland’s unique catholic history, its representation of Irish motherhood and its distinct child welfare system has not been examined in conjunction with the current formal prison system. Considering this, the aim of this research is to explore the experience of motherhood and mothering for imprisonment mothers in Ireland and in doing so to give visibility to their children and support systems. This study is theoretically situated within the interdisciplinary school of motherhood scholarship and is informed by convict criminology and matricentric feminist social work theories and methodologies. A mixed-method approach was applied which included aspects of participatory research; the primary phase collected profiling data on imprisoned mothers and their children, and the second phase gave voice to the experience of motherhood and mothering for imprisoned mothers in Ireland. Key findings indicated that incarcerated mothers in Ireland lead complex lives, often charred by extensive trauma and substance dependency all which have impacted on their maternal experience and practice. The experience of motherhood is a not lineal or a progressive journey, it is often disrupted and dependent on presenting challenges at a given moment in time. Separation, loss and sustained relationships run as concurrent maternal experiences, and the confined experience of imprisonment fosters painful reflections on mothering yet equally provokes maternal transitions and personal progression. All mothering and non-mothering imprisoned mothers held and managed maternal emotions and their identity as mothers remained central to their sense of selves and post release plans. The involvement of formal and informal supports was extensive, however the overall lack of collaboration between systems, particularly social work and family support services and the Irish prison system, during imprisonment was disconcerting, presenting most often a lost opportunity to harness and support positive change and future mother-child relationships. A primary recommendation from the research is that the criminal and social justice systems should work collaboratively. Moreover, that practice and training across such state systems ought to be trauma-informed if we are to be serious about addressing the intergenerational nature of trauma, substance misuse, offending and institutionalisation experienced by this group of mothers and their children.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland