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Spanish prisons home to 94 children of jailed mothers, a tenth of UK's figure and in 'Europe's most progressive' facilities
JAILED former member of the ETA terrorist cell Sara Majarenas hit the headlines recently when she was allowed leave to keep a bedside vigil after her three-year-old daughter was in hospital after being stabbed by the child's father – and, according to interior ministry figures, the tot's mother is one of 94 women whose children live with them in Spanish prisons.
Other than in exceptional circumstances, only children aged three and under live in prisons, after which they are placed with other relatives or in foster care through a staged separation, with regular visits – unless the mother is due for release shortly, when the child may remain with her until the end of her sentence.
In 2006, prisons in Spain – generally those within the Father Garralda-Open Horizons Foundation network – were home to 183 children aged three and under, almost double today's numbers, and the highest-ever figure was seen in 2008, when 253 children lived with 247 mothers.
But during the same period in the UK, prison authorities say 382 babies were born to mothers in Britain's 13 women's prisons, seven of which have mother-and-baby units, or MBUs.
Based upon the most-recently known annual figures, in 2013 prisons in England alone – excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – were home to 3,893 women.
In 2006, a total of 55% of women in British jails had at least one child aged under 16 living with them, meaning that assuming the total of female prisoners for that year was similar to that of 2013, a total of over 2,100 children lived with their mothers behind bars.
Of these, 33% of female prisoners had a child aged under five living with them, or roughly 1,285 mothers, and it is expected that some of these at least had more than one child.
This means the UK has approximately 10 times as many children living with their mums in prison as Spain has.
The number of female prisoners is higher in Spain than in England, although taking the entire UK into account, may be around the same: as at last year, 4,448 of the total of 59,589 offenders serving custodial sentences were women.
The total of prisoners in Spain, male and female, has dropped drastically in eight years – in 2008, Spanish jails were home to 73,558 offenders, of whom 5,950 were female.
Eight years ago, only around 8% of prisoners were female, and now they represent 7.5% of all offenders behind bars.
Anyone in a Spanish jail will have committed a crime that warrants a sentence of over two years, or be a repeat offender, since lesser terms do not have to be served unless it is for a second or subsequent crime.
Despite the much lower number of children in Spanish jails living with their mums, the number of prisons with parental units is proportionally higher than in the UK: Spain has nine women's prisons, of which seven are designed solely for mothers with children, which include three separate wings in 'mainstream' jails, three within 'Social Integration Centres' and one in a mixed prison.
Chairman of the prison workers' arm of the civil service union CSI·F, Adolfo Fernández, says Spanish facilities for women behind bars and particularly those who have children living with them are among 'the most progressive and modern in Europe', since children live 'in almost complete freedom' – although he says an increase in resources, especially the number of educational psychologists, 'would not be a bad thing'.
In Spain, like in the UK, every effort is made to ensure children living with their mothers in prison lead as normal as possible a life and are unaware of the unusual nature of their situation.
Jails for mothers in Spain are designed to be 'as little like a prison as possible', with very discreet security measures, playgrounds with apparatus, and infant schools as close as possible to their mothers' cells.
They are put into nursery for gradually-increasing short periods once they are weaned and, in the very few cases where they continue living in jail with their mothers after age three, they go to school like any other child.
Nearly half of all children in prison live in much more open-plan cells, mainly where their mothers have been allowed a greater degree of freedom due to the less-serious natures of their crimes or towards the end of a long custodial term.
Children sleep in the same cells as their mums, which are much larger and more welcoming and child-friendly in design, or if their mothers are in prisons linked to 'halfway-house' reintegration centres, live with their mothers in small apartments completely sealed off from the rest of the prison and among the most modern facilities in place in Spain's custodial system.
Photograph: Actress Anne Hathaway in Blackgate Prison as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises (Flickr)
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