Doc. 8762

9 June 2000

Mothers and babies in prison


Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee

Rapporteur: Mr Rudolf Vis*, United Kingdom, Socialist Group


Prisons do not provide an appropriate environment for babies and young children, often causing long term developmental retardation. Yet, if babies and children are forcibly separated from their mothers they suffer permanent emotional and social damage. Most European prison systems provide some places for babies to stay with mothers but many hundreds of babies are nevertheless separated from their imprisoned mothers.

This report argues that a new approach is needed for those few mothers of young children who commit serious offences and who represent a danger to the community, and that the overwhelming majority of female offenders with young children should be managed in the community.

I.       Draft recommendation

1.       Assembly Recommendation 1257 (1995) on conditions of detention in Council of Europe member states recommends more limited recourse to prison sentences.

2.       Despite this, the number of women being sent to prison under sentence and on remand is increasing in many Council of Europe member states. The overwhelming majority of women sent to prison are accused of, or convicted of, relatively minor offences and they do not represent a danger to the community.

3.       It is not known how many babies and young children are separated from their mothers in prison. There are about 100,000 women in prison in European countries, and the Howard League for Penal Reform, a United Kingdom non-governmental organisation, estimates that this means that some 10,000 babies and children aged under 2 are affected.

4.       Experts agree that early maternal separation causes long term difficulties, including impairment of attachments to others, emotional maladjustment and personality disorders. It is also recognised that the development of young babies is retarded by restricted access to varied stimuli in closed prisons.

5.       In view of the adverse effects of imprisonment of mothers on babies the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers invite member states:

i.       to develop and use community based penalties for mothers of young children and to avoid the use of prison custody2;

ii.       to develop education programmes for criminal justice professionals on the issue of mothers and young children, using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights;

iii.       to recognise that custody for pregnant women and mothers of young children should only ever be used as a last resort for those women convicted of the most serious offences and who represent a danger to the community;

iv.       to develop small scale secure and semi-secure units with social services support for the small number of mothers who do require such custody, where children can be cared for in a child-friendly environment and where the best interests of the child will be paramount, but where security can be offered to the public;

v.       to develop appropriate guidelines so that courts would only consider custodial sentences for pregnant women and nursing mothers when the offence was serious and violent and the woman represents a continuing danger;

vi.       to report back on the progress made by the year 2005.

II.       Explanatory memorandum by Mr Vis

1. Following a motion for a recommendation (Doc 8479), the Rapporteur was instructed by the Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs to prepare a report on mothers and babies in prison. This report deals with babies who are born to women prisoners and babies and young children whose mothers are imprisoned.

2. This report considers how detention can affect the mother and baby and proposes new ways of managing female offenders who have young children.

3. The main conclusion of this report is that prison deleteriously affects young children but separation is cruel and inhumane, therefore a new way forward must be developed to manage mothers who commit offences. The suggestion is that small scale secure, and semi-secure, units should be established in member States to hold the few mothers and babies who require custody, and that the majority of female offenders should be managed in community programmes.

International law

4. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 2, says that the State is obliged to protect children against

5. Article 3 states that

6. The European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8 states

7. The European Prison Rules as amended by the Council of Europe in 1987, Part 11, number 7 (1) states

No person shall be received in an institution without a valid commitment order

8. A baby confined with its mother does not have a valid commitment order which could also be contrary to international law.

9. It seems clear that the enforced separation of a baby from its mother is contrary to international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 9, says

The welfare of the child

10. The primary consideration must be the welfare of the child. It is in the best interest of a new born or a young baby to be with his/her mother. Forced separation at birth or in the early months is detrimental to the healthy development of a child, and damages the mother and child relationship. Breastfeeding a newborn baby is known to provide a better nutritional and emotional start in life. Sheila Kitzinger, an internationally known expert on child care has called enforced separation of mother and baby an "emotional mutilation".

11. Prison is not a healthy environment for babies and young children. The mother is inevitably under stress, prisons tend to be noisy and privacy is difficult. Stimulation is severely restricted. Many prisons holding babies and young children have few specially trained staff, poor play and exercise facilities, and the development of movement skills is restricted. Many mothers in prisons in Europe have little, or in some cases no, right to go outside the prison walls with their babies, and consequently the babies never see trees, traffic, animals or experience ordinary family life. The children have little opportunity to bond or form relationships with other family members particularly their father and brothers and sisters. Food is often restricted to tins or prepared baby foods.

12. A longitudinal psychological study of babies in prisons with their mothers (Catan 1988) found a gradual decline in their development of movement and cognitive skills. It was assumed that this was because the prison environment restricts exercise and exploration. Once babies start to sit up, crawl and walk, there are few opportunities for prison babies to explore. Instead, they spend more time confined to baby walkers, bouncers and pushchairs. The study found a significant increase in the babies' general development after the mothers' release.

13. Almost 70% of women received into prison on remand awaiting trial or sentence do not subsequently get a prison sentence (Home Office Prison Statistics 1998). A majority of women received into prison under sentence serve less than 6 months. This indicates that most women could be managed in the community using the wide variety of procedures available in member States, including probation and community service, instead of going into prison. Only a very small number of women are convicted of serious or violent crimes and represent a continuing danger.

14. The principle should therefore be recognised that penal custody for mothers and babies could be avoided in all but an extremely small number of cases, and that family welfare and children would benefit from this reform, whilst the needs of the community would be met and public safety not in any way affected.

Practice across Europe

15. In 1989 the European Parliament passed a resolution (document A-2-51/89) on women and children in prison. This recognised that women in prison form a special category who need specific legal protection and urged member states as a matter of urgency to investigate and implement a policy of alternatives to custodial sentencing.

16. Research carried out from the Home Office by D. Caddle has shown that many imprisoned women have young children and that in most cases the mothers are the primary carers, and often the sole carer and there is nothing to suggest that it is different in other European countries. Most European prison systems allow babies born to imprisoned mothers to stay with their mothers, but for older children it means separation (Caddle 1998).

17. In Sweden the general policy is that children should not live in a prison environment. Babies are rarely accepted into a prison, but they can be accommodated for up to a year and the average stay is 3 months.

18. In Germany, mothers are allowed to have their children with them in prison until the child reaches 6 years of age. There are 6 closed prisons which allow children up to 3 years old, and 2 open prisons which allow children up to the age of 6. The open unit at Frondenberg is located outside the prison walls, reflecting a policy of distancing the mother-child unit from the rest of the prison. Each mother has her own apartment comprising a bedroom/living room, a kitchen and bathroom.

19. In the Netherlands children may stay until their fourth birthday in Ter Peel prison, and in 5 other closed prisons up to 9 months.

20. In Russia there are 35 correctional colonies for women, 10 of which have accommodation for children. Most of these provide improved conditions, including additional food and showers for the mothers.

21. In Iceland only very young babies who are breastfeeding or who have special needs may stay in prison.

22. Portugal, Spain and Switzerland allow children up to 3 years, Finland up to 2 years, to stay in prison.

23. Denmark allows male and female prisoners to have their children with them if they will be released by the time the child is 3 but in practice few children are ever held in prisons.

24. In England and Wales 3 closed prisons have places for 34 babies and one open prison has places for 20 babies. Children may stay until they are 18 months old in the open prison and in one closed prison, otherwise the limit is 9 months.

25. Prison policy is for babies to be born in nearby hospitals.

26. The cost of keeping a baby in prison is inevitably high because of the staffing levels required. In England and Wales the weekly cost per prisoner place in a mother and baby unit is about Ł740.

The way forward

27. Accepting that keeping a baby in prison is inadvisable, and that separation is damaging, a new way forward ought to be found.

28. It is suggested that member States be encouraged to develop and use community sanctions for women offenders in every possible case.

29. For the very small number of female offenders with babies who do require penal custody because the nature of their offence is so serious and they represent such a danger to the community that the public interest can only be protected through confinement, small units should be established in the community which provide high quality care for the children. These units could be managed partly by prison services which would avoid the need for change to primary legislation as a prison sentence or custodial remand could be served inside the unit. They should give access to the outside world, under supervision. The financial cost of this is expected to be no higher than present arrangements, but the human cost would be reduced significantly.



Reference: Council of Europe 1997 SPACE 97.3

Female prisoners



% of prison population



















Czech Republic








































































United Kingdom


- England & Wales



- Northern Ireland



- Scotland







Additional bibliography

Caddle D., (1998), “Age limits for babies in prison, some lessons from abroad,” Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate No. 80, London

Catan L., (1998), “The development of young children in HPM mother and baby units”, University of Sussex, working papers in Psychology

Department of Health (1997), “Inspection of facilities for mothers and babies in prison, 3rd multidisciplinary inspection by the Department of Health”, London

European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control (affiliated with the United Nations – HEUNI) (1998), “Crime and criminal justice in Europe and North America 1990-1994”, Helsinki

Home Office (1999), “Prison Statistics; England and Wales 1998”

Home Office (1997), “Imprisoned women and mothers”, Research Study 180, Home Office, London

Howard League for Penal Reform (1993), “The voice of a child, the impact on children of their mother's imprisonment”, London

Howard League for Penal Reform (1999), “In the best interests of babies?”, London

Kitzinger S., (1996), “The complete pregnancy and childbirth”

Penal Reform International, (1999), “Women in prison in Russia” (Lyuda Alpern)

Shaw R., (1992), “Prisoners' children: what are the issues?”, Routledge

Reporting committee: Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee

Budgetary implications: none

Reference to committee: Doc. 8479 and Reference No. 2424 of 20 September 1999

Draft recommendation adopted by the committee with 15 votes for, 3 votes against, and 6 abstentions, on 2 June 2000

Members of the committee: Mr. Cox (Chairman), Mrs Ragnarsdóttir, Mr. Hegyi, Mrs Gatterer (Vice-Chairs), Mrs Albrink, MM. Alis Font, Arnau, Mrs Belohorská, Mrs Biga-Friganovic, Mrs Björnemalm, MM. Cesário, Christodoulides, Chyzh, Dees, Dhaille, Duivesteijn, Evin, Flynn, Gamzatova, Gibula, Glesener, Gregory, Ms Gülek, MM. Gusenbauer, Gustafsson, Haack, Hancock (Alternate: Ms McCafferty), Mrs Hřegh, Mr. Hrebenciuc, Mrs Jirousová (Alternate: Mr. Kroupa), Mrs Kalantzakou, Ms Lakhova, Mrs Laternser, Mr. Liiv, Mrs Lotz, Mrs Luhtanen, M. Lupu (Alternate: Mr Popescu), Mrs Markovska, MM. Marmazov, Martelli, Marty, Mattei, Monfils, Mozgan, Mularoni, Ouzky, Mrs Paegle, Mrs Poptodorova, Mrs Pozza Tasca, Mrs Pulgar, MM. Raskinis, Rizzi (Alternate: Mr Lento), Santkin, Smirlis, Mrs Stefani, MM. Surján, Tahir, Telek, Troncho, Vella, Mrs Vermot-Mangold, MM. Volodin, Voronin, Wójcik

NB:       The names of those members present at the meeting are printed in italics.

Secretaries to the committee: Mr Dronov a.i., Mrs Meunier and Mrs Clamer

* The rapporteur would like to thank the Howard League for its co-operation in the elaboration of the present report.

2 Community sentences can include probation, community service, restorative measures like mediation and compensation to victims, or suspended prison sentences which only come into force if further offences are committed.