Astonishing difference globally in approach to children in prison

A new global assessment highlights the astonishing disparity in how different countries approach the problem of children in detention with their primary caregiver.

Women represent a growing proportion of the global prison population of 11·5 million people. There are no reliable estimates of the number of pregnant women or number of children born in or living in prison with a primary caregiver.

The lack of a global consensus on the issue is highlighted by a new audit in The Lancet which maps a host of country-by-country approaches from ‘Children not permitted in prison’ (China, Norway) to ‘Child to exit prison at three’ (Canada, India, Italy) to ‘Child to exit prison upon cessation of breastfeeding.’

In total, 166 countries, dependencies, or other territories permit children to stay inside prisons with a primary caregiver.

The global assessment shows a broad range of approaches and provisions for the placement of children in prison with their primary caregiver, usually a mother, says lead author Marie Claire Van Hout, Professor of International Public Health Policy at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. 

Her team have also conducted previous global research on this topic, which reveal a broad range of human rights violations worldwide and illustrate the failures of prison systems to consider the needs of children and ensure humane standards for children living in detention.

Researchers suggest that development of a new UN normative standard regarding judicial decisions to permit a child to stay in prison, for what duration and what minimum standards of provision conducive to child health and development should be in place could be a positive step. It could, they say, build on the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) and the Bangkok Rules for women prisoners.

“This could be very difficult indeed due to diverse contexts, fragile states, and prison systems’ capacities to fully consider humane and developmentally conducive conditions of detention for babies, infants, and children. According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, determining a fixed age for caregiver–child separation and exit from prison is not viable and could even compromise child protection standards in some countries,” says Professor Van Hout.

The only extant set of international guidelines is Article 30 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which provides for the prioritisation of non-custodial measures, the special treatment of mothers, and the practical application of the best interests of the child principle regarding caregiver–child separation or the permission to cohabit with a primary caregiver in prison.

Van Hout and her team make various recommendations.

- Policy makers are advised to adopt provisions of Article 30 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as it is the only set of explicit guidelines regarding individualised qualitative judicial decision-making processes, consideration of relevant safeguarding factors, practical application of permissions to stay in prison regarding standards of paediatric care, and provisions of safety-net supports on prison exit.

- Training of staff and routine monitoring of paediatric standards of detention by national prison inspectorates and UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies are crucial.

- Future research agendas must focus on optimal child safeguarding and development during transfer and confinement, and on requisite prison-exit supports in various cultural contexts and settings.

The paper, Children living in prison with a primary caregiver: a global mapping of age restrictions and duration of stay is published in The Lancet: Child Adolescent Health at 00.01am Saturday, August 27, 2023.

Please contact Professor Marie Claire Van Hout, Liverpool John Moores University, UK


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