In the Media

Prison leaves 17,000 children separated from their mothers

PUBLISHED September 29, 2011

Penal reform league says two-thirds of women jailed last year could have been punished in the community instead More than 17,000 children are forcibly separated from their mothers every year in England and Wales as a result of imprisonment, according to new figures. The Howard League for Penal Reform says two-thirds of women jailed last year were convicted of non-violent offences and could have been punished in the community instead, sparing 11,000 children the agony of enforced separation. The group's report, Voice of a Child, says that 17,240 children under 18 were separated from their mothers in England and Wales in 2010 through imprisonment. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, is presenting its findings to a special session on prisoners' children in Geneva of the United Nation's committee on the rights of the child. The latest Ministry of Justice figures show that more than 4,250 women were in prison in England and Wales last Friday. The Howard League says that more than half entered prison on remand awaiting trial and of that number, 60% were not found guilty or did not receive a subsequent custodial sentence. Crook said that the separation of 17,000 children from their mothers was causing long-term emotional, social, material and psychological damage with little or no dedicated support: "If a single mother is sent to prison she will, at least temporarily, lose her children and children become effectively parentless," she said. "Visiting hours in prison are mainly morning or afternoon slots; the time when people are at work and children are at school. Evening and weekend visits remain rare and the situation is likely to get worse as budget cuts mean that family days in prisons are being scrapped. Visiting mum in prison is one of the most distressing things a child can experience." Crook said that the real answer was to end the imprisonment of women and instead hold those convicted of violent offences in local secure units instead. The chief inspector of prisons has said that half of the women in prison have children under the age of 16, and more than a third have children under the age of five. There are 12 women's prisons in Britain, but just seven have mother and baby units with only 69 places available. A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said that the prison service recognised that jail sentences can be distressing for the children and families of female offenders. "That is why we want to increase confidence in community sentences ? to demonstrate they are a viable option for non-violent offenders with caring responsibilities." She said that in cases where prison was the appropriate sentence, establishments promoted family contact and tried to overcome the disadvantages that being away from home might create: "Eligible prisoners can apply for day or overnight leave to maintain and develop relationships with their children and help them resettle in the community on release," she said. Children Prisons and probation UK criminal justice Alan Travis © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds