International Review of Custodial Models for Women: Key Messages for Scotland

This report summarises some of the international evidence on different approaches to managing women in custody. It was prepared to inform the consultation undertaken by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service earlier this year in relation to the redesign of the female custodial estate in Scotland.

8.Policy Considerations for Women in Custody

In addition to the model and distribution of prisons, there are a host of other factors pertinent to any redesign of a custodial estate. These are briefly described below, with the exception of parental responsibilities which is covered more fully (due to this being a key issue for women prisoners).

Location - proximity to home

Countries have taken different approaches in how to accommodate a minority of prisoners (2-9% in Europe) within a prison system mostly designed for men. As the ICPS 2008 Review notes, some countries make little distinction between men and women, with women being housed in large (male) prisons far from home (e.g. USA), whilst others have a hybrid system in which women are imprisoned in women's prisons or small units attached to men's prisons so women can be nearer home (e.g. Spain and France). Others have permanent alternatives to prison to enable some women to serve their sentences at home (e.g. Sweden). For some countries (e.g Germany) being placed close to home, and to family in particular, is one of the principles of imprisonment[126].

Whilst small dispersed units allow women to reside closer to home, this does not in itself guarantee better outcomes for women. In Spain the dispersed model has reportedly resulted in what is sometimes predicted of this approach: that "women get fewer resources and are an afterthought when the policy for the wider prison is being decided."[127] Similarly, the prison reform undertaken in Canada has not been without its challenges: notably its struggle to cope with a rising female prison population (see previous chapter).

Equally important is proximity to local (universal) services. In some countries local services continue to support their clients in prisons. In Norway this approach is called the 'import model'. Health, education, employment, clerical and library services are all 'imported' from (and funded by) the community. This is considered vital for reintegration as it ensures continuity of services for prisoners and engages the community in prisons (and in doing so, improves the public perception of prisons and prisoners)[128].

Whilst many prisons are in isolated locations, good (international) practice suggests that prisons should be located in urban areas close to prisoners' communities[129]. The premise of a 'metropolitan area' approach is that it allows women (and their children) to access local services within their existing community (e.g. education, training and work opportunities, universal health and welfare services), and to maintain family and community ties whilst in prison, both of which are crucial to enabling effective resettlement on release.

However, in a country like Scotland which has a significant number of rural communities, a metropolitan design may not always meet the needs of women from dispersed areas and a different approach may need to be considered for them.

Size of prisons

The size of prisons varies widely between different countries. The average size of unit in Western Europe has space for 60 female prisoners. Some countries have a mixture of small units (in some cases housing less than 10 women) and medium size units housing up to 100 women (e.g. Finland). Other countries, like Denmark and the Netherlands, have similar-sized regional units (both countries have 5 units housing up to 30 and 60 women respectively)[130]. This contrasts greatly with large countries like the USA and Russia which have prisons with capacity for up to 2000 women[131].

The size of prison will depend on a number of factors such as the size and nature of the female prison population, sentencing practices, arrangements with other service providers (e.g. healthcare) and the underlying ethos and model (e.g. if one of 'self care' then smaller units are favoured).

Prison design

The design of women's prisons varies from large walled institutions in which prisoners are housed in dormitory style units (USA) to self-contained flats in open prisons (Germany), and campus-style facilities with communal gardens (Canada, Australia). An Australian literature review[132] listed the following as features of good architectural practice for women's prisons (slightly adapted for this report):

  • cottage-style accommodation[xxi] that enables women to replicate healthy family and community responsibilities and build pro-social skills (such as group cooking, budgeting and laundry)
  • incorporating family-friendly design in dedicated 'mother and child' units (MCUs), as well as playgrounds and visitors' centres;
  • there may also be a need to adapt prison design for women from other culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds;
  • incorporating features known to promote wellness, with particular reference to the use of natural light, fresh air, colour, space, privacy and access to land;
  • ensuring facilities are adapted/adaptable for women with disabilities; and
  • promoting environmentally sustainable design.

A further design-related feature cited in the review was the idea of an open environment with building layout designed to encourage group activities and promote pro-social skills, whilst at the same time ensuring the safety of prisoners and staff (see below). An alternative to the cottage-style accommodation is individual units as seen at Adelaide Women's Prison in Australia. Each women has her own unit that contains a kitchen and bathroom[133]. Although this enables independent living there is less of an emphasis on social interrelatedness. Whilst some women may prefer the privacy this model provides, it could perhaps be isolating for others.


Evidence suggests that women continue to be held in higher levels of security than is needed or warranted[134]. A women-centred approach should allow for a gender-specific classification system. Queensland in Australia, for example, do not classify any women as maximum security[135]. In Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, the principle of normality underlines security classification with the guiding principle being that "offenders shall be placed in the lowest possible security regime"[136].

Other security issues raised in the literature are the management of multiple security levels on one site (as is often the case with campus-style prisons), the appropriateness of campus-style prisons for maximum security prisoners (e.g. through the adoption of 'zones' within the campus), meeting the needs of remand prisoners (e.g. ensuring remand prisoners are not held at higher levels of security than is needed and/or are separated from sentenced prisoners), and harnessing new technologies (e.g. prisoner tracking systems, body scanning, drug-detection technologies) to manage security effectively in modern (unbarred) prisons. A fuller discussion of these issues is provided in the Australian Government 2011 Literature Review[137] (pp43-50).


All the reports consulted in this review highlight the importance of effective healthcare for women in prisons both during, and, crucially, after their prison sentence. There is evidence that women not only experience higher rates of mental health and substance abuse problems (often linked to their offending) then men, but that they also are at greater risk of poor health outcomes post-release (e.g. hospitalisation, mortality)[138].

As noted, a number of countries have recognised the need for dedicated facilities for women with complex psychological issues. For example, in Australia, a dedicated facility for women with these type of issues has been established in New South Wales[139] for men and women, and one for women only in Victoria. Similarly, Canada now has two dedicated facilities for women with severe mental health problems.

In mixed prisons, such as in Spain, there may only be one hospital unit which means women prisoners may be cared for in their cells rather than in a hospital bed unless their condition is acute enough to warrant transfer to a hospital[140]. This has been used as an example of why a gender-specific approach (which would ensure women are treated in an appropriate facility) is so important, perhaps more so than location of prison.

Boronia Pre-release Centre for Women in Australia has been cited as successfully addressing general health issues, including its anti-smoking campaign. Other areas of best practice highlighted in the literature include:

  • The Kyiv Declaration on Women's Health in Prison (UNODC/WHO 2009[141]) which sets out principles for the treatment of female prisoners' health needs
  • National set of health indicators for female prisoners
  • Dedicated facilities for women with complex psychological issues
  • Provision of health screening e.g. breast checks and cervical screening
  • Availability of drop-in health services onsite (e.g. GP, dental, optical, mental health nurse, pharmacotherapy, podiatry etc.)
  • Health promotion programmes e.g. smoking cessation
  • Transition of healthcare into community on release (including maintaining links during prison sentences)
  • Measures that address health needs of specific groups e.g. older women, immigrants, indigenous people

(adapted from Bartels & Gaffney, 2011[142] p57)

A fuller discussion of best practice relating to women prisoners' physical and mental health needs is provided in the Australian Government 2011 Literature Review[143] (pp51-59).

Financial costs

Information about costs, when sought in reviews, has proved hard to access and/or interpret. The 2008 ICPS review[144] discusses the cost of small specialised units for women as likely to be more expensive, but states that this needs to be balanced against the long-term financial savings from reduced reoffending (if indeed, it achieves that aim). A smaller prison population also means that more resources can be spent on prisoners' rehabilitation; this is what is typically seen in Scandinavian countries.

Regimes and reforms

Where regime change has taken place (e.g. in Canada and Australia) the move tends to be towards localisation and a 'self-care' or 'self-management' approach. In some countries, like Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries, the principle of 'normality' has been a fundamental part of the system for years. The ICPS 2008[145] review identifies the following features as crucial for effective prison reform:

  • Different assessment and classification methods for women
  • Healthcare is a high priority and central part of provision
  • Gender-specific training.

Performance management

The introduction to this review lists some of the principles of best practice for female institutions which prisons may measure their performance against. Alison Liebling identified additional (non-gender specific) dimensions which are concerned with the quality of prison life or 'moral performance' of prisons. These included the quality of prisoner-staff relationships, the extent to which prisoners are treated with humanity and respect, levels of safety and order, and opportunities for personal development[146].

In England, HM Inspectorate for Prisons developed a women-specific set of criteria (or 'women's expectations') in 2014 which prisons will be inspected against[147]. These focus on safety, respect, purposeful activity, resettlement and specialist units (e.g. for women with personality disorders).

New inspection standards for inspecting and monitoring prisons in Scotland (HMIPS, 2015[148]) emphasise the importance of reintegration, and, specifically, on maintaining positive family links and the active participation of prisoners in prison life.

Reintegration into the community

Much has been written about reintegration or 'throughcare' which is out-with the scope of this review. However, as we have seen with the Scandinavian approach of continuous resettlement, the location of prisons has a bearing on how accessible they are to a prisoners' local community, rehabilitative services and wider opportunities. Similarly, an ethos of normalisation would dictate that purposeful activity (e.g. work, education) whilst serving a custodial sentence is crucial to a prisoner's rehabilitation. Again, location and travel would need to be considered to facilitate this.

Some commentators argue that more resource should be put into community reintegration at the start of a sentence, rather than towards the end (e.g. moving to a halfway house). A recent survey undertaken by the Confederation of European Probation[149] (CEP) of its members stated that

"prisons tend to open up to community more towards the end of the sentence. Maybe if similar mechanisms could be in place from the first prison day many unintended and destructive effect of imprisonment could be avoided"[150].

Sentencing practice and alternatives to custody

It appears that what works in countries where the female prison population and recidivism is low is not only a progressive approach to imprisonment and rehabilitation, but also different sentencing options and practices. For example, the reductions in prison populations in Finland and Sweden (see earlier) were driven largely by changes in sentencing. As one recent study (2014) of the views of the judiciary on women's centres in England, states:

"Any attempt to reduce the number of short custodial sentences being imposed on women each year must be informed by an understanding of how sentencers make sentencing decisions".[151]

It is sometimes assumed that if more effective community alternatives were available to sentencers that judges would choose these over custody, and in the same vein that one of the reasons why short custodial sentences are used is because of the absence ofviable community alternatives. This argument, however, is perhaps too simplistic and does not reflect the full range of judicial decision making processes.

Whilst it is not within the scope of this report to investigate sentencing practices in relation to women offenders, the noted study of UK judiciary views[152] (n=20) on the Together Women service (a cluster of five women's centres in the north of England) draws out some interesting findings which chimes with other related evidence:

  • Consistent with other studies, "the decision to use custody was an active and deliberate response to the offender rather than reflecting a lack of satisfactory or appropriate community options". [153] Having said that, one Northern Irish study[154] on community sentences reported that the lack of available and appropriate provision (of interventions) for women may explain why so few women had additional requirements on their orders compared to men. This suggests that provision in the community may, in some cases, impact on community sentencing decisions.
  • Sentencers' decisions were primarily based on a custody 'threshold' which was determined by the seriousness of the crime (e.g. serious violence, drug supply and domestic burglary) and, whether a person poses a risk to the public. Other studies have also reported that the seriousness of the offence is paramount, and that an offender's gender does not influence sentencing decisions, with the exception of childcare responsibilities, which was one area in which a woman may be treated differently than a man[155].
  • Where sentencers felt they had more choice, they said they used custody as a last resort for both men and women. However, magistrates (who deal with less serious crimes) described cases that met the custody threshold as those involving repeat offenders who had not previously served a custodial sentence. This is consistent with previous research which has reported magistrates as viewing custody as inevitable where an offender's previous offending and sentencing history is prolific[156], as well as a number of other UK and Scottish studies which reported that in borderline cases, sentencers are more likely to imprison women with a history of breaches of community sentences[157].
  • Sentencers were less likely to be influenced by an offender's needs, and more likely to be persuaded by an intervention's impact on reducing reoffending and the effect of the decision on innocent parties (e.g. offenders' families, victims, the public).
  • Having said that, there was some appetite amongst sentencers for 'residential accommodation' for those with mental health and drug problems. This seemed to be based on there being a recognised need (associated with offending) which required treatment combined with enhanced supervision, which it was felt was not currently provided by community orders.

Although the situation is somewhat different in Scotland in terms of the function of women's centres (unlike in England, most women's centres/community justice services in Scotland supervise women serving community orders), there are some important messages. Sentencing decisions appear to be influenced by a women's offending and sentencing history under certain circumstances. This could result in prolific but low-level offenders with a history of non-compliance being at risk of custody. It is likely that some of the women in remand and those serving short prison sentences may fall into this group. This has been reported in relation to the use of remand in Scotland, with one study[158] reporting that judges felt they had 'no option' but to remand repeat or persistent minor offenders. The same study reported that whilst judges were not supportive of any extension of money bail, they were more enthusiastic about women's centres and the use of electronic monitoring as an extra bail condition.

A further message is that the existence of effective community alternatives may not in themselves prevent female offenders from being sent to prison. Having said that, it has been argued that poor information sharing about services is a barrier to the increased use of women-specific community orders (as an alternative to short custodial sentences) and could be improved by a local directory of services [159]. In Scotland an online National Directory of Interventions and Services for Offenders has been in place since 2012.

If women-specific community-based sentences are to be considered as a viable alternative to custody, it appears that sentencers may need to be informed and reassured about the appropriateness and reliability of supervision, how effective a service is at reducing reoffending, and the impact of the sentence on others (such as victims, the wider community and an offender's children). A final consideration is how non-compliance of (any increased use of) community-based sentences would be handled, both in terms of the potential load on the judicial system and the outcome (e.g. custody). Careful thought would therefore need to be given to the pivotal role of the judiciary in any regime change, as well as what role community -based services such as women's community justice services may play.

Public acceptability

Bringing prisons closer to communities may require some form of engagement with those communities and the wider public. Whilst the Scottish Government does not currently measure public attitudes to women's prisons, the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (2012-13[xxii]) reported fairly low levels of public confidence in the effectiveness of prisons at punishing offenders (53% were not confident), rehabilitation (68% not confident), and at deterring people from crime (68% not confident). Confidence was much higher for prisons' effectiveness at protecting the public from crime (68% confident).

The survey also reported higher levels of confidence in community sentences, with two-thirds of adults (66%) agreeing that community sentencing is an effective way of dealing with less serious crime. The public are less confident, however, in the how effective a deterrent they are, and in whether they punish low level offences. Almost half of adults agreed that learning new skills during community sentences stops low level offenders from committing more crimes.

This suggests that the public may be receptive to more community-based rehabilitative approaches although this is likely to depend heavily on the nature of the offence and how effective any alternative approach is deemed to be at protecting the public. That being said, there does seem to be a perception amongst the public in Scotland that neither prisons nor community sentences are very effective at punishing offenders.

There is a wider debate within criminal justice about the need to move away from a culture of 'populist punitiveness'. This is informed to some extent by Scandinavian approaches which, as noted earlier (see Chapter 6. The Scandinavian Model), are less influenced by political structures and public opinion than may be the case in Scotland. Clearly there is a balance to be met between public acceptability (if that were deemed to be a concern) and what the evidence suggests is most effective. The two are not independent of each other of course; evidence (of effectiveness) could be used to influence the public's views on different forms of custody and sentencing. It is also possible that the public may be more willing to support less punitive measures for women, particularly those with children.


Visiting rights and practices vary considerably. In some countries, such as Denmark, private family visits are a normal part of prison life. Other countries make various provisions to enable mothers to maintain contact with their children such as family visits and family (overnight) stays at weekends (see International approaches to parental responsibilities).

In Scotland, women are more likely (than men) to have regular contact with family and friends by telephone and letter, but are less likely to receive visits (55% of women compared to 62% of men)[160]. Given the importance of relationships with significant others in desistance in women this is clearly an area that warrants further attention. Certainly being located closer to home may help lessen some of the barriers to visits, but (as noted earlier) it is unlikely to resolve them entirely; relationship and parenting interventions could have an important role to play too (see Family contact during imprisonment).

The Corston Report[161] noted that distance from home presented particular challenges for women who relied on statutory care agencies to bring their children to visits, which suggests that all types of carers may need supported and encouraged to facilitate mother-child visits in prison. Australia also advocates that prisons work with child protection departments to ensure that regular contact is maintained between women and their children where they are in care due to maternal imprisonment[162].

A number of reviews, including the 2012 Angiolini Commisison on Women Offenders, recommend the use of video conferencing facilities (e.g. teleconferencing, Skype) to enable women to remain in contact with their family (e.g reading to their children)[163],[164], although it should be noted that there is limited evidence of this in practice and its impact.

Maintaining links with children and family

This section provides an overview of some of the key issues surrounding maternal imprisonment. It begins with an overview of women in prison in Scotland who are mothers, followed by a short discussion about the value of family contact and support both during and after prison. This is followed by a brief description of the impact of maternal imprisonment on children and, finally, a summary of different international approaches to parental responsibilities.

Mothers in prison in Scotland

Approximately two thirds of imprisoned women in Scotland report having children. Precise figures, however, are hard to obtain[xxiii] . Current statistics derive from self-reported data in the bi-annual Scottish Prison Service (SPS) prisoner survey. The 2013 SPS survey [165] reported that:

  • 65% of female prisoners reported having children
  • 57% of mothers in prison stated that they were 'involved in caring for (any of) their children' before they came into prison (43% stated that they were not).
  • 48% of mothers in prison reported that they would be involved in caring for (any of) their children after they leave prison (27% stated that they would not; 25% were unsure)

Putting aside the methodological constraints of self-reported data, this suggests that a significant proportion of mothers in prison (almost 3 in 5) care for their children in some form prior to imprisonment (though we cannot tell from the survey whether children were residing with their mothers). The vast majority (73%, 55 women) of these women (i.e. those women that cared for their children prior to imprisonment) stated that they will resume some form of care of their children on release from prison. One fifth reported they did not know (20%, 15) and 7% (5) said they would not resume care. This suggests that most women with prior caring responsibilities intend to continue care of (some or all of) their children on release from custody[xxiv].

It has been reported in the literature on 'what works with women offenders' that some women (and men) under-report their parental status when in prison[166], possibly due to lack of trust in statutory services and/or fear that their children will be taken into care[167]. At the same time, it is important to note that 43% of mothers in prison in Scotland (see above) state they do not have any caring responsibilities for their children. Estimates derived from the SPS 2013 Prison Survey data suggest that female prisoners are mothers to approximately 400 children[xxv]. However, not all these children will have been cared for by these women prior to their imprisonment. It is therefore very difficult to get a true figure of how many children are impacted by maternal imprisonment in Scotland.

Family contact during imprisonment

Less than four in ten mothers report receiving visits from their children (38% compared to 35% of fathers). This is lower than international evidence suggests which consistently reports that about half of prisoners (male and female) receive visits from their children[168]. However, given that not all mothers in prison are involved in the care of their children prior to imprisonment (approximately 40% - see above), it is perhaps not suprising that not all mothers receive family visits. In addition, but both men and women (equally) report that their family and friends face difficulties in visiting them (most commonly due to distance, cost and time constraints)[xxvi].

Reasons given elsewhere in the literature also report problems with travel and transport difficulties, as well as carer unwillingness and inappropriate ('oppressive' and 'not child-oriented') visiting environments[169]. On the latter, 80% of female prisoners report 'positively' on the facilities for child visits in Scottish prisons[170]. This suggests that it may not be new facilities per se that are needed to improve mother-child contact but rather measures to address the practical and financial barriers that families face (including distance from home), as well as the emotional barriers such as the concerns of children and their carers about prison visits, and the willingness and ability of mothers (and carers) to maintain contact whilst in prison.

One US (conference) paper[171] which brings together US evidence on parenting issues during incarceration (imprisonment) highlights the concerns of parents/carers of children impacted by parental imprisonment:

  • Carers often don't know what to tell children; some children do not know that their parent is in prison
  • Mothers and fathers in prison cite conflict with the other parent/carer (who they argue restrict or deny contact with children) and financial reasons as key barriers to family contact
  • Some parents do not want their children to visit them in prison because of the emotionally painful nature of such contact or because they do not know where their children are
  • Other concerns raised by incarcerated parents are that the short-term nature of their sentence negates the need for children to visit, or that they feel they can't do anything for their children in prison
  • Corrections (prisons) and social services staff may not support child contact, citing concerns about the prison environment and the risk of children's acceptance of imprisonment as normal (though, the paper argues, this view is not supported by evidence).

The same paper cites research that reports separation from children as one of the most difficult aspects of imprisonment for women[172], and notes that family visits increase the likelihood of families reuniting post-release.

More broadly speaking, evidence suggests that women's relationships (with children, parents, partners, peers etc.) are key to a women's path to desistence[173],[174]. Rehabilitation often depends on the active support provided by family and close friends[175]; indeed prisoners (both men and women) are less likely to re-offend if good family relationships are maintained throughout their sentence[176]. Although there is limited evidence on the impact of visits (on mothers and children), the Bartels & Gaffney (2011) review[177] cites a 2010 study that reported the positive effect of visits on recidivism, which found that those who received visits were less likely to reoffend than those who did not (52% compared to 70%).

In terms of criminogenic needs, interpersonal needs related to the family is one the strongest predictors of positive outcomes for women offenders[178]. One of the key factors, amongst others, that women offenders attribute desistence to is concern about the impact of their offending on others, particularly children[179].

The post-release period and reuniting of families

Families need support both during the prison sentence and after release when they may face a range of social, familial, personal and financial problems[180]. For women with caring responsibilities, resuming care of children can be difficult and present a financial strain which can impact on their successful resettlement[181].

Housing difficulties can exacerbate this stressful time; local authorities are naturally reluctant to relinquish care of children until women are seen to be able to provide adequate care. This means that women may find they cannot resume care of their children until they have suitable accommodation[182]. Given that women's post-release accommodation is often unsuitable, unsafe and/or unstable[183],[184] (for women and children) this can be particularly challenging. Lack of appropriate housing leads some women to return to unsafe living arrangements (e.g. to places where they have had prior experience of physical or sexual abuse[185]), or into temporary accommodation which can be situated in areas with high levels of drug use (increasing likelihood of relapse), poor transport links (increasing risk of isolation), and be unsuitable/unsafe for children.

Clearly throughcare has a key role to play in addressing families' immediate needs such as housing and welfare, but it could also extend to more specialist services. For example, some prisons (in Australia) have developed links with community services such as parent support programmes which women can access on release from prison[186].

A further example is Harriet's House[187] in North Carolina, US, which runs a two-year resettlement programme for female ex-offenders and their children. This comprises of four phases. In the first phase ('supervised living') women live in supervised housing for six months, and mothers have supervised visitation with their children; in the second phase ('transitional living') women move to a transitional living unit with their children to start the reunification process for 6-12 months; they then move onto 'community living' where women move into permanent housing with their children; finally, 'aftercare' continues for a further six months in which practitioners monitor women's financial management, parenting skills, and their ability to remain drug/alcohol-free and maintain employment. This model has been highly commended and claims positive outcomes for women, including low recidivism rates (albeit with a small number of participants)[188].

Impact of maternal imprisonment on children

The impact of maternal imprisonment on children has not received a huge amount of attention[189]. However, a growing body of evidence is now emerging[190],[191]:

"Separation from a parent, particularly a mother, who is held a long way from home, can be likened to the trauma of bereavement, with children of offenders being more likely to go on to commit crimes themselves. There is also a lack of financial and practical support for family members looking after children with a parent in prison, little understanding of the impact of feelings of shame, and the possibility of bullying. For mothers in prison, separation from children and other family members can lead to the breakdown of potentially supportive relationships". (PRT, 2014, p80)

There is some (albeit limited) evidence that the detrimental impact on children of parental imprisonment is more pronounced when the mother (rather than the father) is imprisoned, given that mothers are more likely to have parenting responsibilities[192],[193],[194]. A UK (Action for Prisoners' Families) briefing[195], drawing on data from various sources, reports that children of female prisoners are five times more likely to be taken into care on imprisonment than children of male prisoners (see below). The report also states that:

  • Only 5% of children stay in their own homes once their mother has been imprisoned
  • In 2004, 92% of fathers in prison said their partner was looking after the children, compared to 25% of mothers
  • Upon imprisonment of their mother, 25% of children are looked after by their fathers or their mother's spouse/partner, 25% by their grandparents, 29% are looked after by other friends and family members and 12% are adopted or fostered (compared to 2% of children of male prisoners).

Imprisonment of a parent can result in reduced family income, home and school moves, disrupted relationships, stigma, shame and less social support all of which impact on children[196]. Other impacts include:

  • Increased risk of mental health problems - it is reported that 30% of children with a parent in prison experience mental health problems[197]
  • Behavioural and emotional problems[198] including traumatic stress responses[199], anxiety, and depression[200] (as well as social isolation, self-destructive behaviour & low self-esteem[201])
  • Poor academic performance[202],[203]
  • Greater risk of being Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) as adults (risk is greater for children of imprisoned mothers rather than fathers)[204]
  • Increased risk of delinquency and involvement with the criminal justice system[205],[206]
  • It is estimated that children of prisoners are three times more likely to participate in anti-social and delinquent behaviour as other children[207]

The extent of these impacts depends on a range of factors including age of the child, length of mother's sentence (the longer the sentence the more detrimental), the nature of the mother-child relationship prior to incarceration, the ability of mothers to maintain contact whilst in prison, the quality of children's care arrangements, and the type of support offered to families[208].

Research on children's experiences of maternal imprisonment is limited[xxvii]. The Action for Families of Prisoners briefing references research on children of fathers in prison which reports that prison visits can be distressing for children, stating that "long journeys, waiting at the prison gates, searches and sniffer dogs, an environment where physical contact or play is difficult, can all exacerbate the problem" [209].

International approaches to parental responsibilities

Countries vary considerably in how mother-child contact is enabled. Whilst many countries allow young children to reside with their mothers in prison, the maximum age of children varies, from 12 months in Sweden to three years in Spain and Denmark. In some countries it varies between states and individual prisons. For example, it is six years in one state in Germany and four years in one prison in Western Australia[210].

Germany, which is reported to have the most child-centred approach, has implemented some innovative approaches for women offenders with children. These include allowing women 21 days leave per year to maintain contact with their children, and providing half-way houses where women can live with their children up to the age of 6, working in the community while their children attend school/nursery during the day[211]. As noted earlier, Frondenberg prison is an open unit for up to 16 women (most of whom have committed theft or fraud) who live with their children in self-contained flats. Women are able to go outside and play with their children, and have 'vacation' days where they can leave the prison unsupervised. Numbers of residents are limited, however, due to costs[212]. Germany also has a number of mother and baby units where children can live with their mother until the age of three.

In Denmark, if the local authority deems the mother fit to care for the child, it is the mother's decision whether to have her child with her or not. Children may remain with their mother (or father) until aged three, after which every effort is made not to separate the child from his/her mother e.g. mother and child may be moved to a halfway house in Copenhagen (depending on sentence length)[213]. If a couple is in prison they are both allowed to stay in a unit together.

Even where women are held in secure prisons, several countries strive to maintain a mother's contact with her children. For example the large women's prison in Sweden (Hinseberg) has a flat where children can have overnight stays[214].

Norway offers similar facilities in its larger prisons e.g. Bredtveit has an apartment for overnight stays (where it is in the best interests of the child). However, unlike other European countries, children are not allowed to reside in prison with their mothers[215]. Instead, women with young children may be able to serve sentences outside prison. For example, mothers may be housed in alternative institutions until their child is (usually) nine months old, or may serve (all or part of) their sentence at home[216].

In Spain, the law recognises the right of incarcerated mothers to keep their children with them until they are three years old. Between 2006 and 2012, five new 'mother units' were recreated to accommodate incarcerated women and their young children to live out-with prisons[217]. Children attend nursery and school, and, in most cases, mothers are allowed to take their children to school (and other activities, appointments)[218]. Spain also has a number of open prisons which it calls 'dependent units' in which women can live with their children in residential facilities in urban areas, from where they can access treatment and education and training. Although overseen by the Prison Service, dependent units are run by third sector organisations[219].

In Canada there is a mother-child programme in place in all regional facilities, which enables children to reside with their mothers (where it is considered to be in the best interests of the child)[220]. A review of the Canadian approach[221] reported that three quarters of women indicated they had children, of which over 60% were single parents. Contact with children was mostly through telephone and letters (rather than visits), and concerns were raised about the cost of phone calls and travel. As noted earlier, travel and financial costs are known barriers to child visits in many countries, including Scotland. What is perhaps surprising is that these continue to be persistent problems in a regional estate like Canada, where women are supposed to be held closer to their homes (see Chapter 7. Learning from the Canadian Experience). Given the size of Canada, however, it is likely that home-prison distance may still be considerable for some families of women in custody.

Some prisons run parenting programmes for mothers in prisons (though more emphasis tends to be placed on treatment type programmes). In some prisons in Australia, for example, participation is compulsory for women whose children live with them. The MAAD (Mothering at a Distance) Programme developed in New South Wales (Australia) aims not only to reduce the impact of enforced separations on the mother/child relationship but also to break the cycle of intergenerational crime.

One international literature review[222] of women's prisons cited the following as important features of effective parenting-child intervention programs:

  • relationship building through visitation classes;
  • strong communication ties with children;
  • regular child contact;
  • peer support from other women prisoners in the same situation;
  • collaboration with the primary caregiver; and
  • the commitment and cooperation of corrections staff.

The same report (Bartels & Gaffney, 2011 pp58-67) provides a useful description of best practice approaches and facilities for effective parent-child relationships. The key areas covered include:

  • MCUs (mother and child units) and family-friendly visiting areas
  • Healthcare (e.g. obstetric care, breastfeeding)
  • Parenting programmes, playgroups, family workers
  • Potential of new communication technologies (e.g. Skype)
  • Overnight visits of non-resident children (e.g. for weekends and school holidays)
  • Childcare (for resident children) to enable mothers to undertake work, education and treatment programmes
  • Appropriate training and security checks of staff who deal with children
  • Continuation of care into community (e.g. local parent support programmes)


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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