Cherie Blair pleads for jailed parents to be given more contact with families

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The Independent Online

Cherie Blair will make an impassioned plea next month for young parents in prison to be allowed better contact with their families, to prevent their children becoming the next generation of criminals.

Cherie Blair will make an impassioned plea next month for young parents in prison to be allowed better contact with their families, to prevent their children becoming the next generation of criminals.

The leading QC and wife of the Prime Minister will warn that the cycle of crime will not be broken unless more is done to avoid the break-up of the vulnerable families of offenders.

Writing as Cherie Booth, Mrs Blair, who has a long-held interest in prison reform, makes her concerns clear in the foreword to a new report on the plight of parents in jail and their families.

Published next month by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), this research will reveal that vulnerable young men and women in custody who are separated from their children are being failed by ministers and that support is patchy, at best.

The PRT estimates that the number of children separated from their mothers is probably more than 17,500, and that as many as 7 per cent of primary schoolchildren may have a father in prison.

Good family contact is estimated to greatly reduce reoffending, according to Home Office figures. However, prisoners are being increasingly placed further away from their homes because of prison overcrowding.

The PRT wants more funding for parenting programmes, especially for those prisoners aged from 15 to 25, with more family days, extended children's visits and child-friendly facilities in prisons.

Mrs Blair will call on the Government to provide alternatives to custody that provide support for young offenders with children who commit minor offences.

In her foreword, she will make clear that although offenders should not be treated with "kid gloves", especially if they have committed serious offences, young parents should be given more support in maintaining contact with their children - which can prevent families fracturing.

This is not the first time that Mrs Blair has made her views known on controversial issues. In her professional role as a human rights lawyer, she has expressed concern about the increasing numbers of children and women in custody.

In 2002, she made a ground-breaking speech on prison reform in which she called for more alternatives to custody and has given her support to an inquiry into the treatment of women offenders.

There are no official statistics on the number of young parents in custody but about5 per cent of children whose mothers are in prison remain in their own homes once their mothers have been sentenced.

The PRT said the priority for most young mothers and fathers in prison is to be good parents on their release, but that they need a lot of support if they are to succeed.

"To avoid damaging a generation of young, dependent children, prison must be used as an absolute last resort for parents whose offending is so serious that there can be no alternative to custody," said Juliet Lyon, director of the PRT.

"Sustained support and guidance for young parents who offend offers a unique chance to break a depressing cycle of misery and crime."