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Can Children Live in Prison with a Parent?

If you follow our work closely, you know that the Law Library of Congress often produces foreign, comparative, and international law reports on a wide range of important issues.  Our recently completed report, titled Laws on Children Residing with Parents in Prison, surveys the laws of ninety-seven countries related to young children residing in prison with an incarcerated parent (particularly mothers).  The report also provides available statistical information regarding how many children reside with a parent in these countries’ prisons.  In addition, our survey highlights key international measures on the issue, including those produced by the United Nations and the European Union.

The issue of what happens to children when a parent is incarcerated is one that has received attention from governments and organizations around the world.  And certainly the scale of the issue is not small.  For instance, according to a 2011 study (see p. 5) by the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), a non-governmental organization that participates in various United Nations activities, 800,000 children in the European Union (EU) are separated from “an incarcerated parent on a given day each year.”  A 2010 U.S. Department of Justice report noted (pp. 1-3) that in 2007 over 800,000 of the then nearly 1.5 million national prison population were parents of children under the age of 18; of these, the children of twenty-two percent of state inmates and sixteen percent of federal inmates were under the age of 4.  Furthermore, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled between 1991 and 2007.

A corridor in women's wing, looking south (first floor). - Chester County Prison, 235 West Market Street, West Chester, Chester County, PA (photo by Ned Goode, September 1960) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa0327/photos.132386p).

A corridor in women’s wing, Chester County Prison, Chester County, PA (photo by Ned Goode, September 1960) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa0327/photos.132386p).

Incarcerated mothers of young children are often (p. 34) the primary or sole caretakers of their children.  In this and other situations (including instances in which the children are too young to be separated from their mother or were born in jail), many countries allow children to temporarily reside in prison with their mothers.  For instance, according to the QUNO study, 980 infants lived in prison with incarcerated parents in the EU in 2011 and 2,135 children lived with 1,774 incarcerated mothers in Indian prisons in 2008.

We found that the majority of countries surveyed impose age limits for the admission of children into and length of stay in prison, but these limits vary greatly from one country to another.  For instance, Cuba allows only children under the age of 1 to reside in prison.  Similarly, countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Japan, and South Korea permit children to reside in prison until they are 18 months old.  On the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Cambodia, Fiji, Mexico, and Turkey, which allow children to remain in prison until age 6.  A few countries use different or additional markers such as a breastfeeding period (including Haiti and Swaziland) and an assessment of the best interest of the child (Sweden and Switzerland) for making admission and length of stay determinations.  Once the children reach the legally imposed age limit, many of the countries surveyed may place them with a relative who is able and willing to assume responsibility, and in the absence of such an option, foster care or orphanages.

Like the requirements for a child’s admission to prison, the types of facilities available for children who live with incarcerated mothers vary greatly.  While in most countries children admitted to prisons actually live in the mother’s prison quarters, a few countries (including Russia and Kazakhstan) require that such children be placed in child care facilities attached to the prisons with the incarcerated parent having regular access.  In addition, some countries (such as Norway and Australia) provide special residential units for imprisoned women with young children.  We also found variations around matters such as the provision of special food, medical care, and other necessities.

We hope that this report and others on our website are helpful to researchers and those with an interest in the laws and policies of countries around the world.  Some of the issues covered by our recent publications include sentencing guidelines, funding of national infrastructureregulation of bitcoin, wildlife trafficking and poaching, and restrictions on genetically modified organisms.  You can also subscribe to email alerts for reports.  Another good way to keep up to date with our newly published reports is by reading this blog, particularly the Global Law category.

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