The government needs to end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low-risk, MPs and peers have urged.
The children of women who are imprisoned have the right to family life and that must be protected, the joint committee on human rights said.
The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.
In a report, the committee accused the government of not having reliable quantitative data on the numbers of women in prison who were separated from dependent children and said it was “largely working on these issues in the dark”, and could not “protect the human rights of children who are invisible”.
The report made a number of recommendations including:
• The temporary release from prison of every low-risk mother of dependent children, alongside pregnant women and women in mother and baby units.
• Allowing all children to visit their mothers in prison on a socially distanced basis, unless there were exceptional circumstances.
• Making it mandatory to ask all female prisoners about their dependent children through a publicly available annual census.
Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, who is chair of the human rights committee, said: “One of the fundamental human rights is the right to family life. It is children for whom this right is most important. Yet when the government banned children from visiting their mother in prison they trampled over that right.
“They can put that right now by early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children and re-instating visits for the rest. Covid-19 causes lasting injury. But so does separating a child from its mother. The way to protect public health is not to damage children but to release low-risk mothers and reinstate socially distanced visits.”
Only 24 women have been released in England and Wales during the pandemic under the scheme for pregnant prisoners and new mothers, along with another seven women who were within two months of completing their sentence. It was initially understood that larger numbers of prisoners would be freed but prison sources said that finding suitable accommodation, and support in the community, had been a barrier to letting larger numbers of pregnant women and mothers and babies out of jail.
In March, the committee announced an inquiry after all visits to prisons in England and Wales were suspended. As part of the inquiry, in June researchers heard evidence from the children of female prisoners and the grandparents caring them.
One grandmother caring for her five grandchildren told how her daughter had previously been able to visit her children every two weeks for five days as part of a temporary release programme. However, since the pandemic began the children had not seen their mother for more than three months, and only two of the five children had been offered a virtual call.
“This is affecting the children in a bad way, especially the youngest, aged six. He has nightmares and cries so much. We all just need to see her,” she said.
Another grandmother, who is caring for her one-year-old grandson, said his mother had been recalled to prison just before the pandemic took hold and the baby was able to visit her just once before visits were suspended.
She said: “The ongoing separation from her young son has been by far the most harrowing and distressing part of her recall. It is a sentence no mother should have to endure, let alone her child.”
A 10-year-old whose mother had been in prison for 18 months, said: “We did not go to see her because she was coming home every two weeks for five days until the virus. We have not seen her or Dad for three-and-a-half months, not even her face. Mum phones every day. I cannot explain how it makes me feel. It makes me feel sad and confused.”
The minister of state, Lucy Frazer, who gave evidence to the committee, told MPs and peers there was no date set for the resumption of prison visiting. However, she said the government had taken steps to provide alternative ways for prisoners to keep in contact with their families, including 900 extra telephone handsets; the increase in phone credit for prisoners by £5 a week and the expedited rollout of technology to allow mothers to have virtual visits with their children, at least once a month.
However, Harman said that unless there was a threat to public safety, children should be reunited with their children. “Arguments against our proposals carry no weight at all,” she said. “There is absolutely no point in keeping women in prison who are at no risk to public safety.”
A Prison Service spokesperson said the decision to stop visits was not taken lightly – it was based on public health advice and mirrored the restrictions faced by the country.
He added: “To help women remain in contact with their families, we have given them extra time on the phone and installed new video call technology at all women’s prisons.”