09:31 - 12 May 2004
More than 17,000 children in England and Wales each year face an unhappy and
uncertain future after their mothers are sent to prison, a charity said.
The Prison Reform Trust is calling for urgent action to improve support and resettlement services for thousands of mothers in prisons and their families.
Director Juliet Lyon urged courts to consider alternatives to custodial sentences for women who had not committed serious or violent crimes.
A conference organised by the PRT was being held in London to discuss the needs of young mothers in custody.
The number of children affected was estimated using previous studies showing that around two-thirds of the women prisoner population are mothers and that on average each mother in prison has 2.1 children.
Based on official figures showing that 12,650 women were imprisoned in 2002, PRT estimates that more than 17,700 children are separated from their mothers each year.
Previous research has shown that maintaining good family ties can reduce a prisoner's risk of re-offending by six times.
But half of all women prisoners at the end of last year were held more than 50 miles from their home town and a quarter were held more than 100 miles away, PRT said.
Ms Lyon said: "It is hard to think of a worse place than jail for a young mother or a pregnant woman, not because staff do not try to respond to prisoners' needs, but because prisons are punishments of last resort, not care or treatment centres for exceptionally vulnerable women with or without their babies.
"Why do we persist in locking up young mothers, who have mostly not committed serious or violent offences, holding them miles from home and damaging another generation of small dependent children when, given the comparatively small numbers involved, it would be possible to establish local support and supervision centres for women who offend?"