The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison Contents


The impact of sending mothers to prison

1.Sending a mother to prison has a serious, detrimental impact on her children. This has been known for a long time. In 1813 Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate Prison and protested at children being held in abysmal conditions alongside their imprisoned mothers. In her seminal report in 2007 Baroness Corston concluded that: “[t]he effects on the 18,000 children every year whose mothers are sent to prison are so often nothing short of catastrophic.”1 These effects begin as soon as a mother is sentenced, are felt throughout her sentence and continue for many years after she is released.


2.Evidence presented to this Committee by those with first-hand experience, made it clear that the damaging effects of sending mothers to prison begin from the moment a custodial sentence is given.

“On the day of her trial, I was at home in the living room, dancing to MTV, and I got a phone call from my brother. He said, “Mum’s gone”. I thought he was joking. I had to ask him about five times. From being the young girl who was dancing in the living room, I automatically took on my mum’s role. I did not even have time to adjust to the custodial sentence. It just leaped.”

Georgia, then aged 15, on hearing that her mother had been sent to prison2

“The day of the hearing, I dropped my children off at the three different schools and parked my car up on a two-hour slot in front of the courtroom. Within 15 minutes, the judge made a decision to sentence me to three years to make an example out of me, and I went down the stairs. [ … ] Within a short space of time, my mothering roles, everything that I am as a woman, had been stripped and taken away [ … ]”

Lina, whose children were ages 4, 6, 7 and 10 when she was sent to prison.3

During the sentence

3.When a mother goes to prison it is both disruptive and traumatic for her children.

“I was worried about my mum when she was sent to prison. I did not know that it was going to happen. My dad had been to prison but that was not so bad as he could look after himself. I had seen things about prison and thought my mum may be upset and crying, and people may bully her. I had no way of knowing. When she did phone it was a long time. I worried a lot. I felt angry.
[ … ] It upset me most at night. I cried in the dark because I could not hear her voice. Just to say she was okay, and say goodnight and she loved me, and I could say I loved her, was all I needed.”

A written statement from a child whose mother has been in prison, about how he felt during that time.4

“I was left with all the responsibilities of going shopping, running a house, everything really, at the age of 15. I was a drop-out from college because it was taboo to have a mother in prison and I felt like I could not talk about it. I became very isolated and started to go down a really bad route of drinking, getting into trouble, expressing anger. That is basically what happened.”

Georgia, then aged 15, explained how her mother being sent to prison impacted on her life.5

4.These experiences echo those of children interviewed in a number of research projects.6 In 2018, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) published a report ‘What about me? The impact on children whose mothers are involved in the criminal justice system’ in which young people make these comments:

“It’s hard when it’s your mum in prison… she’s supposed to be the one looking after you.” (Malik, 13)7

“My relationships with my family were all affected. Me and my brothers and sisters all went into care and were separated. When we would meet up, we didn’t know what to say to one another.” (Charmaine, 18)8


5.Academic research has shown that children who experience a parent going to prison as a child are more likely than their peers to have future problems. They have an increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, dying before the age of 65; they are also likely to earn less than their counterparts as adults, and stop education at a younger age than is the norm.9 A child with an imprisoned mother is likely to suffer more negative effects than a child with an imprisoned father.10

6.A mother’s imprisonment is likely to have a lasting impact on a child’s ability to trust in authority.

“Not just then did it have an effect on me, but even now I am petrified of any kind of authorities: social services, police officers. I am absolutely petrified.”

Georgia, then age 15 on the long-term impact of her mother’s imprisonment.11

The human rights framework

7.Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) states:

i) Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

ii) There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

8.When the criminal court sentences a parent with a dependent child, the Article 8 ECHR rights of both the parent and the child are engaged. This was made clear in a 2001 case, R (on the application of P and Q) v Secretary of State for the Home Department. In this case, Lord Phillips, former Master of the Rolls, said:

“If the passing of a custodial sentence involves the separation of a mother from her very young child (or, indeed, from any of her children) the sentencing court is bound [ … ] to carry out the balancing exercise [ … ] before deciding that the seriousness of the offence justifies the separation of mother and child. If the court does not have sufficient information about the likely consequences of the compulsory separation, it must, in compliance with its obligations under section 6(1) [Human Rights Act], ask for more.”12

9.In R v Petherick, Lord Justice Hughes noted that:

“Almost by definition, imprisonment interferes with, and often severely, the family life not only of the defendant but of those with whom the defendant normally lives and often with others as well. Even without the potentially heart-rending effects on children or other dependents, a family is likely to be deprived of its breadwinner, the family home not infrequently has to go, schools may have to be changed.”13

10.The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (“UNCRC”) is also relevant. Articles 2 (non-discrimination),14 3 (best interests of the child), 12 (respect for the views of the child) and 20 (children deprived of family environment) are engaged.15

11.The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (‘the Bangkok Rules’) set out standards for the treatment of women offenders and prisoners. Rule 64 of the Bangkok Rules states that:

“[n]on-custodial sentences for pregnant women and women with dependent children shall be preferred where possible and appropriate, with custodial sentences being considered when the offence is serious or violent or the woman represents a continuing danger, and after taking into account the best interests of the child or children, while ensuring that appropriate provision has been made for the care of such children.”16

12.Yet, even though the need to consider children has long been recognised, as can be seen from the quotations from our witnesses and others, children are still being profoundly affected when their mothers go to prison. Our inquiry was intended to discover whether the rights of children whose mothers are imprisoned are properly considered in practice, and whether policy is developing in a way which will secure those rights.

Our inquiry

13.There are positive signs that the Government and others, including the judiciary, are keen to address the impact of sending women to prison on their children. The Female Offender Strategy and The Farmer Review for Women (see Chapter 2) both set out steps to address the needs of women who offend more effectively. The Sentencing Council has strengthened its guidance to judges and magistrates about the need to consider dependent children. However, evidence to the inquiry clearly indicated that this guidance is not being satisfactorily adhered to in practice and the question remains whether these steps go fast or far enough to guarantee children’s rights.

14.We published an open call for evidence on 13 September 2018 along with a set of questions which served as the terms of reference for the inquiry. We were very grateful to receive 22 written submissions, 21 of which have been published and can be viewed on our website.17 The submission we received from the Prisoners’ Advice Service contained sensitive information relating to individual cases and was provided on a confidential basis, so although it has influenced our thinking we have refrained from publishing it. We are grateful to all those who provided evidence.

15.We held a series of four oral evidence sessions. Our key witnesses were people who had first-hand experience of mothers being sent to prison. We wish particularly to thank Lina, Georgia and two witnesses who gave evidence anonymously for sharing their experiences with us. We learnt greatly from and are deeply indebted to them. We are also grateful to the other witnesses who appeared before us: academics, representatives of non-governmental organisations, the chairman of the Sentencing Council and Government ministers.

Scope of our inquiry

16.Children are negatively affected when a parent goes to prison whether that be their mother or their father. The effects are however significantly greater when their mother is imprisoned.18 This report therefore focuses on mothers and other primary carers (who may be fathers or grandparents) who go to prison. As women are more likely to be primary carers,19 the report generally refers to mothers, and this should be read as including all primary carers unless otherwise stated.

17.This inquiry has focused on the situation in England and Wales as justice is a devolved matter in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

1 Home Office, The Corston Report, March 2007

2 Q2 [Georgia]

3 Q1 [Lina]

4 Q12 [Witness A] Witness A is a grandmother who looked after her two grandchildren when their mother, her daughter, was in prison. She read this statement to the Committee on behalf of her grandson.

5 Q1 [Georgia]

6 See for example Prison Reform Trust & Families Outside, What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system, 2018

9 Dr Shona Minson (CMP0010)

11 Q2 [Georgia]

13 R v Petherick [2012] EWCA Crim 2214

14 Article 2 (2) UNCRC 1989 provides that States shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members In written evidence it is suggested that if children’s rights are not observed within the criminal sentencing courts the courts may be in breach this duty. See Dr Shona Minson (CMP0010)

15 Dr Shona Minson (CMP0010)

17 Joint Committee on Human Rights - Publications

19 Prison Reform Trust, Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment?, February 2017

Published: 9 September 2019