Written by Laura Bevan, Prisoner and Family Support Service Manager

‘It is estimated that millions of children worldwide have a parent in prison: tens of thousands are living in prison with their parent, most often their mother, and many times that number are separated.’ (Penal Reform International)[1] This article will look at the former, and you can see our other article this month about how Prisoners Abroad supports people separated from their children by imprisonment.

Prisoners Abroad is in touch with around 1000 British citizens in prison overseas at any one time. We are currently[2] helping 72 women, fewer than five of whom are pregnant or have a child with them. Prison systems are not normally designed for children or mothers-to-be, and Prisoners Abroad sends extra funds to enable pregnant women to pay for food, vitamins and medical care, can provide information on how to stay healthy, and have sent activities for their children.

I just want to say thank you! I must say being in here with a child isn't easy and sometimes it is stressful. But when I receive your packages and letters, I really appreciate it and it does lighten my mood up. It's nice to know we have extra support.

According to the Library of Congress[3], ages up to which parents can keep their children in prison vary: in Argentina a child can stay in prison until it is four, in the UAE until two, and in Zimbabwe until it is weaned. In Pakistan the age is six, although if there is nobody else to care for the child they may be in prison until the age of ten. These are all countries where we are providing or have given support to Britons. Prisoners Abroad’s largest female client group is in the USA (where reportedly only eight prisons allow babies to stay with their mothers[4], and pregnant women have complained of brutal mistreatment[5]), followed by Spain (children can stay up to the age of three years) and Jamaica, where they can only be with their mother for three months.

The UN Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Sanctions for Women Offenders[6] (also known as the ‘Bangkok Rules’) are international standards that can actually apply to anyone who is a parent. They state that:

  • ‘non-custodial alternatives to custody should be applied wherever possible if someone facing imprisonment has sole caring responsibilities
  • children must be taken into account at all stages of a parent’s contact with the criminal justice system
  • the decision as to whether a child is to be separated from its mother (or father) must be based on individual assessments and the best interests of the child
  • children in prison with their mother (or father) should never be treated as prisoners and their experience must be as close as possible to life for a child outside
  • mothers/fathers must be allowed as many opportunities as possible to see the children who are imprisoned with them.’

These allow for both sides of the argument about when / whether children should be separated from a parent in prison, since it is not always clear-cut which is best for the child. However, according to Penal Reform International, ‘reports confirmed that the UN Bangkok Rules have still not been implemented in many countries. The European Parliament noted difficulties for women prisoners […] due to being housed in wings of male prisons, and concluded that the Bangkok Rules are ‘seldom adhered to’ in the EU member states.’[7]

Whilst we are not able to campaign to change prison conditions worldwide, Prisoners Abroad works very closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to raise any cases where women are not being treated in accordance with international human rights standards, particularly where children are concerned. We will continue to provide our survival grants and welfare services to anyone who needs them.


[1] https://www.penalreform.org/priorities/justice-for-children/what-were-doing/children-incarcerated-parents/ accessed on 8/8/2018

[2] As at 8/8/2018, out of a total of 991 prisoners

[3] https://www.loc.gov/law/help/children-residing-with-parents-in-prison/foreign.php accessed on 8/8/2018

[4] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3608322/Born-bars-Inside-America-s-maximum-security-prisons-babies-stay-felon-mothers-serve-jail-sentences.html 25/5/2016

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/20/pregnant-women-prison-system-abuse-medical-neglect 20/10/2015

[6] http://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/docs/2010/res%202010-16.pdf accessed 8/8/2018

[7] https://www.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/PRI_Global-Prison-Trends-2018_EN_WEB.pdf page 18, accessed 8/8/2018 (quoting Joëlle Bergeron, European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Report on prison systems and conditions, 6 July 2017 (2015/2062(INI)), A8-0251/2017, p19.)