Primary caregivers

“Lolita remembers all the little moments that happen [...] She understands and learns everything. She will not forget. If Lolita stays here longer, she will forget nothing”, says her mother Jasmina. Lolita (2,5 years) and her brother Diego (under 1 year) live with their 20-year-old mother Jasmina in a women’s prison in Turin, Italy. Jasmina requested to be placed under house arrest, since she was still awaiting trial for a crime she committed 4 years ago. She wanted to make sure that her children do not grow up in prison. All three of them are living together in a prison cell on a special ward of the prison. Observing her children grow up, Jasmina has noticed that living in prison clearly has an impact on them. Every night at the same time, a female prison guard will do her rounds – locking all the doors to the cells. For the rest of the night, the children are locked up without any possibility to go out. The longer they are in prison, the more Diego cries. They simply do not have enough recreational opportunities and moments of freedom. Sometimes, when they are locked up, Diego hands her his jacket. ‘He is giving me his jacket. He wants me to put on his jacket. He is letting me know that he wants to go out.’ But of course, that is not possible. There is nothing more she wants for her children then their freedom. ‘When Lolita leaves it will hurt me, but I will also be happy.’
Jasmina, mother of Lolita and Diego

Main Findings

Approximately 19,000 children were living with their primary caregivers in prison in 2017. While it is easier to track down numbers from some regions (South America and Europe, for example), the lack of data is evident in most other regions.

Growing up in prison has a significant adverse influence on children because of ill-suited living conditions, inadequate hygiene, a lack of stimuli, and a subset of repetitive sensorial experiences linked to the prison world (e.g. doors slamming, keys jangling and industrial smells).

There is also a general lack of adequate prison facilities, such as those with specific mother-child units. 

No universal standards determine whether children should be detained with a primary caregiver and under what conditions. Also, factors such as specific age limits for a child’s admission into a place of detention and restrictions on the length of permissible stay can result in the separation of child and caregiver. 

The question of whether and how long children should be allowed to stay in prison with one of their parents is a complex issue with profound implications for the well-being and development of the child. Therefore, decisions throughout the criminal justice procedure must be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering: the alternative care possibilities, the availability of non-custodial measures, the suitability of existing prison facilities, the possibility of enabling safe co-residence and assessing how the separation from the primary caregiver is likely to affect the child. 

The detention of a child with a primary caregiver is regulated by the following clauses of the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Article 3(1), always taking into account the best interests of the child;

Article 2(2), using non-discrimination guiding principles;

Article 6, safeguarding children’s survival and development allowing children to grow up in a healthy and protected manner; 

Article 12, ensuring child participation; 

Article 9(1), ensuring the child’s right to a family environment.

Other regional instruments: 

Article 8 of The European Convention of Human Rights; 

Article 24 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union; 

Article 19 of The Inter-American Convention of Human Rights; 

Article 15 of The San Salvador Protocol. 

Pathways to Detention

Children co-residing in prisons with their primary caregiver are deprived of liberty as a consequence of decisions and actions by their primary caregivers, as well as the policy choices made by governments and the sentencing options of judges.

Promising Practices


When sentencing a primary caregiver, courts shall recognise children as rights holders, take their best interests into consideration and avoid, as much as possible, prison sentences. 

Governments are encouraged to recognise both the detrimental impact of family separation due to parental incarceration and the detrimental impact of deprivation of liberty with a parent. A presumption against a custodial measure or sentence for primary caregivers should apply. 

States shall incorporate assessments of the best interests of the child into decision-making processes, including pretrial detention decisions, sentencing decisions, and decisions regarding whether and for how long a child shall live with a primary caregiver in prison. 

If imprisonment is unavoidable, an individualised assessment of the best interests of the child must inform any decision about whether and when a child should accompany a primary caregiver into prison or be separated from such carer. 

Adequate provisions must be made for the care of the children entering prison with their parent and age-appropriate facilities (such as nurseries, kindergartens, mother-child units, and children’s care homes) and services must be supplied to safeguard and promote the safety, dignity and development of any child living with a parent in prison. The child must be carefully protected from violence, trauma and harmful situations. 

When the child is leaving the place of detention, the primary caregivers should ideally be released together with the child.

The United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, Executive summary 2020
Children living in prisons with their primary caregivers
The United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty 2019
Children living in prisons with their primary caregivers