Doc. 8981

15 February 2001

Mothers and babies in prison

Recommendation 1469 (2000)

Reply from the Committee of Ministers

adopted at the 740th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (7 February 2001)

1.       The Committee of Ministers shares the Assembly’s concern at the difficult issues raised in connection with mothers and babies/young children in prison.

2.       Both Recommendations Nos. R (87) 3 on the European Prison Rules and R (98) 7 concerning the ethical and organisational aspects of health care in prison acknowledge that prisons are not a proper environment for babies and young children and that, where such situations cannot be avoided, the utmost has to be done in order to minimise the likely negative effects of imprisonment on the children and their mothers.

3.       The Committee of Ministers considers, in line with the above-mentioned Recommendations, that mothers and children, like seriously ill, disabled and elderly prisoners, should be regarded as a particularly vulnerable group in prison. Prison management should therefore ensure the best possible care for mother and child, taking into account, in particular, the interests of the child and the living conditions arranged for mother and child in the prison.

4.       The Committee of Ministers emphasises, however, that it has some reservations as regards the Assembly’s view according to which the “overwhelming majority of women sent to prison are accused or convicted of relatively minor offences” (paragraph 2). It should be borne in mind that in a number of countries the (overall) small proportion of female prisoners in the total prison population includes a non-negligible percentage of women accused or convicted of serious offences.

5.       Over recent years the Committee of Ministers has been active in promoting sanctions and measures which are not being enforced behind prison walls but within the community. Thus, several Recommendations have been adopted, which enounce fundamental principles in this area such as Recommendations Nos. R (92) 16 on the European Rules on community sanctions and measures, R (92) 17 concerning consistency in sentencing, R (99) 22 concerning prison overcrowding and prison population inflation and Recommendation Rec (2000) 22 on improving the implementation of the European Rules on community sanctions and measures.

6.       In line with these texts the Committee of Ministers considers it axiomatic that member States make provision for a sufficient number of suitably varied community sanctions and measures, such as alternatives to pre-trial detention, probation as an independent sanction, the suspension of the enforcement of a sentence to imprisonment, community service, victim compensation, treatment orders for drug or alcohol misusing offenders or intensive supervision for appropriate categories of offenders (e.g. dangerous offenders). Most of the sanctions and measures mentioned are commendable for women offenders with young children and are better suited than imprisonment to further a continuous caring relationship between mother and child.

7.       It is the constant view of the Committee of Ministers that deprivation of liberty should be regarded as a sanction of last resort and should therefore be provided for only where the seriousness of the offence would make any other sanction or measure clearly inadequate. The respect of this fundamental principle has to be ensured both in the context of legislative reform and judicial practice, in particular in relation to pregnant women or mothers of babies or young children, who have committed offences of a gravity which might normally warrant a sentence of imprisonment. However, even in the more serious cases non-custodial disposals, such as high-intensity supervision in the community or semi-liberty arrangements, should be given due consideration in order to allow the mother concerned to care for and to develop her personal relationship with the child under the best possible conditions.

8.       The Committee of Ministers agrees with the Assembly that appropriate action should be taken with a view to raising the awareness of criminal justice professionals as to the difficulties mothers with young children have to face within the framework of the criminal justice process. This applies in particular to penitentiary staff entrusted with supervising mothers who are imprisoned with their young children. This category of staff should be specially chosen and trained for this task.

9.       The Committee of Ministers cannot but endorse the view of the Assembly that where young children live with their mothers in prison appropriate specialist support in social work and child development has to be provided and should be delivered by properly trained staff. It is the duty of prison management and of other complementary services (health and social welfare etc.) to do everything possible to ensure the normal health, growth, social, emotional and intellectual development of the child and to support the mother in an appropriate way.

10.       The reinforcement of maternal bonding will be very much enhanced by organising the provision of crèches, day nurseries and kindergartens and this will often prove of value to the mother when she returns to take her place in her family on release. Moreover, to the extent possible child mending by family members outside the penal institution should be furthered as it can help to ensure that the burden of child rearing is shared.

11.       Family visits to prisoners should command high priority for resources and in daily routines. Such visits are of particular importance for young children in prison with their mothers in that they help them to develop normal inter-personal relationships with the outside world. The role of the child's father cannot be underestimated in this respect. The Committee of Ministers fully shares the Assembly’s view that prison management should actively promote the father-child bond by allowing for a particularly generous regime of visits both in terms of frequency and duration. The creation of a child-friendly environment in which such visits can take place will contribute to furthering the relationship between father and child.

12.       As emphasised above, the Committee of Ministers shares the Assembly’s view that efforts should be undertaken in order to avoid prison sentences for pregnant women and nursing mothers. The development of appropriate rationales for sentencing, rather than guidelines for the courts, along the lines of Recommendation No. R (92) 17 on consistency in sentencing could contribute to this end. The fact that a woman offender is pregnant or has young children to care for should normally enable the deciding authorities, with due consideration to the best interest of the child, to impose appropriate modalities for the enforcement of the sentence. The Committee of Ministers stresses the importance of ongoing co-operation of the member states and the Directorate General of Legal Affairs in the field of the penitentiary system aimed inter alia to improve the situation of mothers and babies in prison.

13.       The Committee of Ministers has duly brought the present Recommendation to the attention of the Governments of member States.

14.       The Committee of Ministers is ready to assess the progress made in this field of activities and to reply to any future question or recommendation that the Assembly may address to it.