Human Rights Committee hearing on the right to family life of children whose mothers are in prison 8th June 2020

I’m 10 years old. Mum has been away for 18 months . We didn’t go to see her because she was coming home every 2 weeks for 5 days until the virus. We haven’t seen her or dad for 3 1/2 months. Not even her face. Mum phones every day I can’t explain how it makes me feel. it makes me feel sad and confused.

I miss my mum.  I want to hug her and  I miss her so much

If you want to listen to the full recording of the children and their grandma talking about their experiences, and Harriet Harman, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights talking about why mothers should be released from prison, rather than keeping them locked up whilst the damaging no-visits regime continues, the clip from Radio 4 Woman’s Hour today 8th June, is here. Listen at 00:58 to 12:23 with the family story from 6:16

The interview was broadcast ahead of another hearing of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, at which Lucy Frazer MP, Minister for Prisons and Probation and Jo Farrar, the Chief Exec of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, were both questioned about the implications of the current Covid management in prisons on the right to family life of children whose mothers are in prison. This is a clear follow on from the JCHR enquiry in 2019.

I don’t intend to provide a summary of the whole proceedings, rather there are a few specifics I want to comment on.

Firstly I want to commend Harriet Harman and the members of the Committee for suggesting that releasing mothers who have dependent children would be a better way forward than keeping them locked up right now. This is unattractive politically but given that most women are in prison for very short sentences of less than 12 months, and very few are high risk, there is every reason on a balance of social goods, to allow mothers out of prison to care for their children at this time. By not doing so, thousands of children are being subject to trauma which is likely to have effects on their lives in both the short and the long term.

When asked by Harriet Harman about ‘wholesale children barred from seeing their mothers without knowing whether they’d see them again’, Lucy Frazer MP responded by saying that they’d taken a wide range of factors into account when deciding to stop visits. She then went on to say, ‘that’s why we introduced extra services to enable families to keep in contact.’  We heard the list of measures that has been repeated a number of different times previously in the House of Lords, in front of this committee and in other spaces – ‘we have rolled out’ in cell telephony and video technology.’

As a commentator pointed out on twitter on Friday, Robert Buckland, Lord Chancellor told this Committee back on 20th April that there were now ‘telephones in every cell’. This wasn’t true then, and it’s certainly not true now. Karen Buck MP pressed Lucy Frazer on the actualities of the extra provision and it turns out that there are now in cell telephones in 5 out of 12 women’s prisons – less than half. Apparently 900 extra handsets were purchased to be shared among those without in cell phones across the entire prison estate of 80,000 people: it would appear that it remains  quite far short of ‘every’ woman having access to a phone.  To make a phone call many women will be limited to their very brief time out of the cell each day, and I have heard of women and men having to make the choice between having a shower or calling their families. Having been promised video visits back in May there is now video technology available for making face to face calls in 3 women’s prisons and around 17 men’s prisons. When asked how frequently women would be able to have a video call Lucy Frazer answered ‘monthly’. This was corrected by Jo Farrar to ‘at least monthly’. Again, I mention the Northern Ireland prison service where prisoners are in most cases able to access a weekly video call.

Lucy Frazer seemed to take exception to a perceived criticism of the fact that video calls are not yet available for all women. Her argument was that the MOJ didn’t intend to do it quickly, so the fact that it’s faster than it would have been planned in a non-covid prison service, should be appreciated.  This suggests that the Ministry of Justice had already recognised that video visits were an important additional resource for prisoners to maintain family and other contact, so it might have been expected that when all other forms of visits stopped they would have put every resource into getting video visits up and running as quickly as possible.

There was mention by Jo Farrar of additional efforts across other prisons including women being able to read bedtime stories to their children. She did then correct this to  say ‘they can record a bedtime story’. This I’m assuming is the Storybook Mums service where women record a story on to a CD and it’s sent to their children. This is different from the scenario one might have thought existed where mums could phone their children each night at bedtime and have an unhurried story time.  Harriet Harman was quick to suggest once again it would be much better to have those mums reading bedtime stories to their children in their bedrooms and not from prison. ‘Don’t we need to crack on with this early release scheme’, were her exact words.

Dean Russell MP asked the questions about data collection beginning with, ‘How many women in prison have children under the age of 18?’ I am glad members of the Human Rights Committee have not yet tired of asking this question. I imagine them drawing lots to see who will ask it at each and every session. They’ve been asking for well over a year now, and I hope that their persistence will eventually result in the data being collected and someone being able to answer the question. I really appreciated Mr Russell’s insistence that this data is in itself only the starting point to finding out how each and every one of those children is being supported through and beyond their parent’s sentence.

There were a few questions about whether the regime change infringed on women’s human rights. I found Lucy Frazer’s answer about the MOJ engaging in a reflective exercise of  ‘taking learning forward, in terms of impact, but also things we can learn positively from’, uncomfortable. Prisoners are locked up for up to 23 1/2 hours a day. Children haven’t seen their parents in 13 weeks. Many people within and outside of prisons are reaching breaking point, and yet there was no answer to the question about human rights, other than MOJ are reviewing things and are looking for the positives right now. Maybe you think I’m not giving credit where credit is due for the fact that (as was mentioned several times) 23 and not 2,500 prisoners have died from Covid, but having heard those two little children talk about how missing their Mum, I certainly feel there is quite a lot of work still to be done by the MOJ and HMPPS to mitigate against ongoing damage. It is fantastic that there has not been greater loss of life, but that does not make this a success story.

Lucy Frazer did acknowledge that not having visits was hard, but she said it’s also hard for men in prison, and young people in prison, and for people in the UK in lockdown. Setting aside the fact that being in lockdown in the community is nothing like being locked up for 23 hours in prison, the fact that there is a lack of family visits across the whole estate does not make it ok that there are not family visits in the women’s estate.

The final question was about scrutiny of prisons. I thought it notable in the Ministers’ answer that she listed many officials, both groups, organisations and individuals, but no mention of prisoners’ families. I know that many partners of prisoners have been writing to her frequently and I do hope that soon she will begin to consult with them too.

It was noteworthy that throughout this hearing there was absolutely no mention of families being ‘the golden thread’, or of the importance placed on maintaining family contact for people in prison.  I think this is the first time during this pandemic that I’ve heard a government minister speak about families and prisoners without mentioning it. At least there is no pretence anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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