CHILDREN of female prisoners will be able to spend nights and weekends with their mothers in Scotland’s new community jails.

Five custom-built secure units planned as part of a far-reaching overhaul of women’s prisons will include accommodation suitable for children.

Rhona Hotchkiss, governor of Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only female prison, is steering the plans and has confirmed children, from toddlers to teenagers, will be able to spend occasional nights and weekends with their mothers in self-contained apartment-style accommodation.

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She said: “We are working on facilities that would allow children to come in and spend time with their mother in what is as normal an environment as possible. It will feel like a small flat. It will mean women being able to have their children in for nights and weekends.”

Low-risk prisoners will be housed in the community units, located across the country, as they are helped to prepare for release and encouraged to have regular contact with their children and families.

Ms Hotchkiss, speaking at a conference on how best to care for mothers in custody and their children, said the design and working ethos of the units would, for the first time, be specifically tailored for women prisoners.

She said: “We are trying to design things differently and be responsive to the needs of women in prison with the aim of more effectively reintegrating them back into their communities”

There are currently 370 women in custody in Scotland – down from 450 – but ministers, who scrapped plans for a large women’s prison to replace Cornton Vale last year, want to reduce that to 230.

About half of women jailed in Scotland are mothers although only 30 per cent have custody of their children.

The five community units, each holding 20 women, are part of a n extensive redesign of Scotland’s female jails. It includes a rebuilt prison at Cornton Vale for 80 of the highest-risk prisoners and a unit for 50 women in Aberdeen. All will have some facilities for mothers and children.

Research into the Mother and Baby Unit at Cornton Vale said better training for prisonstaff and easier access to external support workers would allow more prisoners to keep newborn babies with them while in custody.

The Rose Project, steered by Stirling University and leading children’s charity Aberlour, found the low number of prisoners allowed to keep their babies – for every baby that stays with their mother in prison, four are taken into care – risked isolation and a lack of support from staff unused to offering the necessary support.

Aberlour support prison staff at Cornton Vale’s Mother and Baby Unit and the charity’s chief executive SallyAnn Kelly echoed the need for effectivepartnership.She said: “Identifying and supporting the best interests of imprisoned mothers and their children is complex and challenging work. It cannot be done alone. Only real and effective collaboration between prison, health and social services and the third sector will provide the range of skills, experience and expertise required.”