Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: Human Rights Committee publishes report on the response to children whose mothers are in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic

3rd July 2020

In ‘Human rights and the government's response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison’ the Joint Committee on Human Rights finds that the right to family life of children whose mothers are in prison in England and Wales risks being breached, and proposes that the Government ends the blanket ban on children visiting and consider the temporary release from prison of every low risk mother of dependent children, alongside pregnant women and women in Mother and Baby Units.

As well as evidence from State stakeholders, including the Minister for Prisons and Probation, the Committee also heard evidence from children separated from their mothers in prison. The Committee heard that the outbreak of Covid-19 has exacerbated problems of the separation of children from mothers in prison. Among others, the Committee has recommended that children be allowed to visit on a socially distanced basis, where safe to do so. Committee Chair, Harriet Harman MP said:

“One of the fundamental human rights is the right to family life.

[…] COVID-19 causes lasting injury. But so does separating a child from its mother. The way to protect public health is not to damage children but to release low risk mothers and reinstate socially distanced visits.”

While virtual visits were said to have been put in place to compensate for the suspension of physical visits, none of the children whom the Committee heard evidence from had yet been able to benefit from a virtual visit with their mother. The Committee also found that telephone calls were “rarely a good substitute for visits”. The report details the evidence from a 10-year-old who said:

“Mum phones every day. I cannot explain how it makes me feel. It makes me feel sad and confused.”

According to the report, the government does not have ‘even the most basic information’ about the numbers of women in prison who are separated from dependent children. The report details that it should be mandatory to ask all women entering prison whether they have dependent children and what their ages are. Moreover, prisons should undertake an annual census asking women whether they have children and what their ages are. This information should be collated and published. This should be used to better support the right to family life of these mothers and children.

The report states that the curtailment of all visits and the deficiencies in the measures to mitigate the impact of this “have put at risk the right to family life of up to an estimated 17,000 children of mothers in prison”.

Read Joint Committee on Human Rights’ The Government’s response to COVID-19: children whose mothers are in prison here.

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Note: This report follows the Joint committee on Human Rights report on The right to family life: children whose mothers are in prison in September 2019, which made a range of recommendations on data collection and publication, and extended supports for both children and mothers.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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