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Print this pageCHILDREN OF PRISONERS: Informal meeting




Quakers United Nations Office

Resource type:

News release

[9 March 2008] - An informal meeting at the Human Rights Council, organised by Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) and BICE, with the help of the Swedish government, drew attention to the neglected issue of children of prisoners.

Rachel Brett, of QUNO, said: “This is an issue that has not been addressed by the Human Rights Council, and indeed nor by anyone else.”

As an example, she cited the UK, where around 18,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year. The exact figure is not known because the information is not recorded. “We know that around the world there are thousands, possibly millions but we have no way of knowing how many, or indeed who they are,” she said.

UN guidelines often provide that a record of prisoners should always be kept. However, they do not talk of children or babies, either those who accompany them or those born in prisons. Rachel added: “If the authorities do not have that information, how can we even begin to address the issue?”

Oliver Robertson, consultant for QUNO, and author of the report 'The Impact of Parental Imprisonment on Children', then took the floor.

Thorny issue

He said: “More so than almost any other issue I have come across, this is almost impossible to know how to deal with. Having a child accompanying the mother might be the best option, but it is by no means a good option. Some practices are less bad than others, but the issue is still extremely complex.”

He highlighted the importance of looking at the situation of children both before and after prison, as well as during, noting that police or prison officials might not question what happens to the child when the mother is arrested. The mere fact of having a child may be a factor to consider when deciding whether to put someone in pretrial detention, he added.

Mr Robertson also drew attention to a recent India Supreme Court judgement, which he praised for being unusually widespread and comprehensive. The decision specified that if you have a mother in pretrial detention, judges should take into account a number of considerations, such as whether the legal process can be speeded up as a result of the special circumstances.

There is massive variation in terms of practice, he continued. Sometimes a child may be separated from the mother, and be taken from the prison, when they are 30 days old, while at other times when they are six years old. The prison may be very restrictive, where the child is locked up all day, while in other countries such as Germany, the child and mother live in a mini-house within the prison, so that the shock when they leave prison is minimised. In fact, he said, a huge problem for children is acclimatisation when they leave. They may be scared of dogs, trees, cars or even men. There is the need to make sure that the prison environment is as similar as possible to the outside world, he added.

Mr Robertson also spoke of a decision in South Africa, where the court ruled that the if the Convention on the Rights of the Child is to have legal effect, then this should also be considered when a parent is sent to prison. The child's best interests must be taken into account.

He finished by emphasising that: “Regardless of what the mother has done, or is accused of doing, the child is not the one that has done the crime and should not have to suffer because what other people have done.”

Shortage of policies

Enyo Gbedemah, of BICE in Togo, noted that even where it is illegal, there are still children in detention with their mothers because it is tolerated in practice by prison officers. He said there is often a lack of hygiene, very little access to healthcare and poor nutrition. The psychosocial support is practically non-existent. “There is little prospect for the future of these children”, he said.

In Togo for example, in most cases children are sent to children's centres while their mother is in detention. In Cote d'Ivoire, he said, BICE have created schools within prisons to help children at preschool level.

He said: “Very often our biggest problem is that there is no real policy on behalf of the state – that is often the source of all the other problems.” He added there was also a dearth of information. “People don't necessarily know if policies do in fact exist.” He said information programmes need to be set up so police and social workers can know the international law.

Matthew Naumann, from QUNO, has been working on the issue in Kyrgyzstan. He said that unlike many other countries, the prison population had actually been declining. A number of laws have been enacted dealing with the issue of women and children in prison, he said. For example, a woman sentenced to less than five years in prison should not actually go to prison if they are a mother, although this is on condition of her taking appropriate care of the child. .

Other laws seem quite progressive, he said, such as the rule saying that the court must, as part of its judgement, state what will happen with the children of a mother sent to jail.

However, he said: “The problem with this law is that the judges don't seem to know about it.”

Another huge issue, which he said the researchers found especially disturbing, was that children 'disappear' while the mother is in detention. And, he added, “lots of women in prison we spoke to did not know where their children were.”

There are also cultural problems, he said. When women get sent to prison they are often abandoned by their partners. They often don't want the children to see the mothers again. With men, however, their partners usually stick by them.


Rachel Brett concluded the presentations by putting forward some suggestions. Firstly, she said, there was a lack of information. She also highlighted:

1.The need for systems that will identify caring responsibilities so this can be considered when someone comes into contact with the criminal justice system.
2.The need to look for alternatives to both detention before trial and imprisonment. These should only be as a last resort.
3.Because situations are so different within countries and between parents the decision to imprison has to be taken on a individual basis in relation to the best interest of the child. Is there another parent or person who can take care of the child? What are the conditions in prison?
4.The fact that if children do go to prison, it is vital they are registered. Babies born inside prison must also be registered.
5.The need to consider who will take care of the child if a mother is imprisoned.
6.The need to think about how to maintain contact with parents in prison
7.The importance of preparing a child for leaving prison.
8.The need for much more information on good practice.

She said she wanted to see these issues highlighted in the resolution on the rights of the child, adding: “We are convinced there would be a real benefit in a day of general discussion on the subject.”

Among the comments from the floor, a representative from the ICRC noted prison is not the right place for the child. Meanwhile a representative from Penal Reform International drew the panel's attention to the issue of children of immigrant detainees. Children and parents might be kept together, “but that may be in what effectively amounts to a high security prison”, she said. And Roberta Cecchetti, of Save the Children, asked: “Where are the fathers in all of this?”

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Quakers United Nations Office
13, Avenue du Mervelet
1209 Geneva

Tel: + 41 22 748 48 03

Last updated 17/03/2008 06:54:20

Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.

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