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Can Children Live in Prison with a Parent?

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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 the women's wing of the Chester County Prison.
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,

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.

Comments (10)

  1. A similar subject is the placement of children with parents who are undergoing inpatient substance abuse treatment. Data on the effects both of these environments have on the children would be most helpful; intuitively the effects would be negative, and studies to determine if the benefits provided by such arrangements outweigh the down sides.

  2. My child was taken from me due to my alcoholism and I became sober two months later…I did not get my son back for 15 more months…I believe this made recovery more difficult for me and caused deep abandonment issues in my son. It depends on the situation – but I believe stripping the children from the parent is destructive.

  3. Parents need their children, children need their parents, and society need both to be a great society. Sure there are risks with children been with incarcerated parents locked up, but so exist a problem when they are not nurtured by their parent when there is an absenteeism do to mom or dad being incarcerated. Perhaps, it is better to work to solve the problem with unity of the family rather than separation of the family.

  4. There should be pay attention to best child interest

  5. I would desire to know what you and other researchers may think in the light of the fact that research has it that children are fully made up at the age of 6 ( made up….not sure am using the correct terminology) Fully developed?

    What’s the minimum age in our opinion that a child should stay in the prison set up?
    The inside of prison in kenya is pathetic. That’s where the child picks the first language…steps…images and memories.

    .I truly think that children must never be exposed to those kind of issues.

    We must protect the innocent

  6. There should be careful consideration of the mental health and stability of the incarcerated parent. An unfit mentally ill parent in or out of jail is not in the best interest of any child.

  7. there should be a careful consideration on how these children integrate with the outside world by the time they are released from prison. I am sure these children face challenges in integrating with the outside world

  8. While reading the people magazine at the Dr. office the other day I came across an article about Prison Nursery Programs I found it interesting and I wanted to learn more. This blog is very informative I liked that fact that it shows how different countries address the problem of mothers in prison. I found it interesting how some countries allow a child in prison even up to the age of 6, but it is important to weigh the benefits. In the U. S. alone, more than 250,000 children are separated from their mothers due to incarceration and this number is steadily growing over the past 2 decades (Gllad and Gat, 2013). This number is so high and we need to do something for these children, that seems to be why many countries are implementing prison nursery programs or similar programs. According to Goshin and Byrne (2009) prison nursery programs can provide an opportunity for children to accompany their mothers in prison for the duration of her sentence if she fits into certain criteria like smaller sentence and the child fits the age group stated by the facility she is in. According to Gllad and Gat (2013) the mother-child relationship is essential for the child’s normal development during the different stages of life, separating the mother and infant can put the infant at risk of being moved frequently among different caregivers and the infant can suffer from long-term emotional problems. Therefore, the government feels the need to act in the best interest of the child and make sure they are cared for and in a safe environment. I think it is a great way to help prepare mothers in caring for their children and how to live in society when they are released from prison.
    Gllad, M. and Gat, T. (2013) U.S. v. my mommy: evaluation of prison nurseries as a solution for children
    of incarcerated children. Review of Law and Social Change. 37(2). 371-402.
    Goshin, L. S. and Byrne, M. W. (2009). Converging streams of opportunity for prison nursery programs in
    the United States. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 48(4). 271-295.

  9. Funny, the report fails to say what the US policy is when in fact our policy NEVER allows for children to reside with their parents in a US prison. Isn’t that rather odd that we’re studying how other countries handle it, when we do nothing?

  10. what the authority need to do is to take into consideration the best interests of child before deciding to place them in prison With their imprisoned mother

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