Last year we reported on the harmful effect a mother being sent to prison has on her dependent children. Since we published that report, the outbreak of Covid-19 has put issues around separation of children from mothers in prison into stark relief. Restrictions on visits, and the seeming inability of the Government’s early release programme to reunite a large number of mothers with their children, have put at risk the right to family life of up to an estimated 17,000 children of mothers in prison.
At the heart of this problem are visiting restrictions. These should not be imposed on prisoners as a blanket ban. Children must be allowed to visit their mothers in prison on a socially distanced basis, where it is safe for them to do so. Restrictions on visiting rights, where they do exist, must be both necessary and proportionate in each individual case. In the cases of mothers sentenced to prison before the outbreak of the pandemic, their children will have understood that they were able to visit their mother in prison, and in some cases, will have been used to regular contact with their mother. The breaking of this regular contact is causing harm to both children and their mothers in prison. If it is not possible to allow children to visit their mothers, every effort must be made for an appropriate form of electronic communication whether through phone calls or video-calls.
Whilst some prisons are making attempts for mothers to read their children bedtime stories over the phone or in pre-recorded messages, this is still a poor substitute for the real thing. The Government and HM Prison Service must enable more mothers of children to be there, in person, for their children. The Government has announced two schemes to facilitate the release of prisoners during the Covid-19 crisis. These are welcome, but the schemes have not gone far or fast enough in reuniting children with their mothers. Only a limited number of prisoners are eligible for release, and only a limited number of those have been released: just 16 women from Mother and Baby Units and seven pregnant women have been released so far. The Government must immediately, and as announced, temporarily release from prison all remaining pregnant women and those in mother and baby units, and all mothers with dependent children and who are within two months of their release date who have been appropriately risk assessed, to ensure those mothers can be with their children while opportunity for physical contact is limited during these unprecedented times. The Government should consider an extension of their current policy, which is to temporarily release prisoners who are pregnant or in Mother and Baby Units, to all mothers of dependent children where those mothers have been individually risk-assessed as posing no, or low, risk to public safety.
In our 2019 report we found that despite sentencing guidelines which advise judges to consider primary caring responsibilities when passing sentences, a large number of children were being harmed when their mothers were sent to prison. The judges can only fulfil their existing obligation to weigh the Article 8 rights of a child when sentencing if they know that the child exists. When sentencing an offender, the judge must make reasonable enquiries to establish whether the offender is the primary carer of a child and take this into account appropriately.
This report reiterates the Committee’s previous finding that there is a complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison, the number of children whose mothers are in prison and the number of women who are pregnant and give birth in prison. This data needs to be collected immediately, so that the mothers who are in prison and their dependent children are provided with the necessary support now. We recommend it should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison whether they have dependent children and what their ages are. An annual census should take place in prisons which asks women whether they have children and what their ages are. This information must be collated and published.
The right to family life for prisoners is also engaged at the end of the lives of close family relations. Where a prisoner would previously have been able to attend a funeral of a close family member in person, arrangements must be made for them to attend remotely.
Published: 3 July 2020