The Howard League for Penal Reform has revealed that the imprisonment of women in the UK separates at least 17,000 children from their mothers every year.
Their new report Voice of the Child says that this causes long term emotional, social, material and psychological damage, with little or no dedicated support. The report was released yesterday (30 September) to coincide with a discussion on prisoners' children at the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The Howard League argue that much of this damage could be avoided as almost two-thirds of women are in prison for non-violent offences and could be serving sentences in the community.
They say that more than 11,000 children could be spared the agony of separation if non-violent women were spared jail.
In addition, the League believes that some women conceal the number of children they are responsible for, for fear of the consequences for their children, and so the true number of children with a mother in prison may be far higher.
More than half the women entering prison do so on remand and of that number, 60 per cent do not receive a custodial sentence or are found not guilty.
The report found that only five per cent of female prisoners’ children remain in the family home once their mother has been imprisoned. The Howard League insists that forcibly separating children from their primary carer causes severe distress and leaves permanent emotional scars.
The League's chief executive, Frances Crook, commented on the report as she prepared to attend the discussion at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
“We are storing up damaged children and creating problems for our future as the cycle of deprivation continues with the next generation,” she said, “If a single mother is sent to prison she will, at least temporarily, lose her children and children become effectively parentless.
She pointed out that 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. Crook said, “Visiting mum in prison is one of the most distressing things a child can experience”.
The links between the imprisonment of a parent and the life chances of a child have been well documented and over the years there have been several initiatives to mitigate the damaging effect.
But Crook said, “These do not work”. She insisted, “The real answer is to take women out of the very establishments that will hinder their and their children’s life chances. Women should not be in prison in the first instance.”
The Howard League argues that the best way to reduce women's offending is in the community, by improving mental health services and tackling drug abuse.
The Howard League for Penal Reform first looked at this issue in the 1990s by conducting interviews with the children of serving female prisoners in Holloway prison.