Briefing: Why focus on reducing women's imprisonment in Scotland?

Date: 22nd March 2017
Category: Children of prisoners

Scotland has one of the highest rates of imprisonment for women in Northern Europe. The impact on children of parental imprisonment is profound - this briefing looks at working to reduce the female prison population in Scotland.

Women in the criminal justice system in Scotland

  • Scotland has one of the highest rates of imprisonment for women in Northern Europe. The average daily women's prison population is approximately 400, with 315 sentenced women and 85 women on remand.
  • The number of women imprisoned increased by 46% in the 10 years since 2003-04, growing at a faster rate than men's prison population.
  • The growth in the number of women in prison in Scotland can more likely be attributed to the increasing use of custodial sentences by courts than changes in the pattern of offending. Also, women's prison sentences got longer - in 2008-09 women were sentenced to an average of 271 days in prison compared with 228 days in 1999-2000.
  • Scotland already has the second highest female prison population in Northern Europe, doubling between 2002 and 2012. This is completely unacceptable and does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive society should deal with female offenders.
  • On 16 November 2016, there were 350 women in prison in Scotland, accounting for 4.7% of the total prison population. This is a decrease from 5.6% of the population in 2010.
  • Across Scotland 3,000 women are imprisoned each year, of whom almost two thirds are on remand. In 2011-12 there were 3,100 female receptions to prisons in Scotland of which 1,979 were remands and 1,121 sentenced.
  • 83% of pregnant women in prison in 2015 were there on remand or were serving sentences of 12 months or less.
  • Of those women given a prison sentence in 2013-14, 76% received a tariff of 6 months or less (compared to 66% of men).

Mothers in prison

  • Although precise figures are hard to obtain, it is estimated that approximately 65% of women in prison in Scotland are mothers. Of those with childcare responsibilities prior to imprisonment (about 70% of mothers), most intend to resume that care on release.
  • Only 5% of children stay in their own homes once their mother has been imprisoned.
  • The impact on children of parental imprisonment is more pronounced for mothers, given that women are more likely to be the primary carer. The impact of imprisonment on children ranges from home and school moves, poor academic performance, increased risk of mental health problems, and involvement in the criminal justice system.


Together's State of Children's Rights report

It is estimated that around 63% of prisoners in Scotland have children which means that a large number of children are affected by parental imprisonment. Despite this, there is no recording system of how many children are affected. Estimates are placed at approximately 27,000 children affected each year. The lack of information on the number of children makes it difficult to tailor support services to meet their needs.

Children and families with a family member in prison experience stigma, keep the issue hidden and often do not seek support, even when it is available. Evidence shows that children of prisoners are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their peers, that they experience the separation as bereavement, and that families often suffer financially as well as emotionally when a parental figure is removed from the home. These difficulties are exacerbated by the economic circumstances which many families experience before and after the prison sentence. Children are also often not given information about parents being released from prison, which can be re-traumatising and disempowering.

A number of Together's members report concerns around a lack of awareness and training for those working with children on the effects of having a family member in prison.

Child rights recommendations

  • Child Rights Impact Assessments should be undertaken during arrest, sentencing and conviction of a parent or carer, making sure that the children's best interests are a primary consideration at all stages.
  • Children affected by imprisonment should be identified and data collected so their needs are met. Professionals working with children should receive training and guidance on how to identify children affected by imprisonment of a family member.
  • Scottish Government should ensure sufficient and sustainable funding for a Prison Visitors' Centre in every prison, recognising the multiple positive impacts that they have on children and families affected by imprisonment.
  • Read Together's State of Children's Rights report here.