‘No Births Behind Bars’: the scandal of imprisoning pregnant women in the UK
Content warning: This article contains mention of infant death.
Nearly every week another imprisoned pregnant woman gives birth in the UK. She will go into labour in her prison cell and call for help. If her call is answered, and the prison guard believes that she’s in labour, she will – after being body searched by an officer – be taken to hospital in handcuffs to give birth while two police guards stand over her. This is the best case scenario.
The worst case scenario is when a pregnant woman calls for help and the prison guard doesn’t believe she is in labour. Or her calls for help are ignored altogether and her baby dies. So, a campaign group is drawing attention to the issue and calling for change. However, the wider context to the criminal justice system incarcerating pregnant women is one of gross negligence and abject failure.
‘No more babies in prisons’
On Saturday 18 March, a group of mothers, babies and toddlers from the #NoBirthBehindBars campaign group marked the Mother’s Day weekend. They staged a protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice. It was in solidarity with imprisoned pregnant women across the UK:
The group held up signs reading “No Babies in Prisons” and “Prison is No Place for Mums and Kids”. They also sang nursery rhymes in the London drizzle. People called for no more births behind bars – while the babies and toddlers dressed in yellow and green in honour of Mother’s Day:
The protest, organised by feminist collective Level Up, called for a statutory duty for judges and magistrates to take pregnancy and parenthood into consideration when sentencing women. However, the overarching aim of the #NoBirthBehindBars campaign is to end the practice of sending pregnant women and new mothers to prison altogether:
The seriousness of the situation is reflected in recent incidents of babies dying.
Children are dying
In 2019, an 18-year-old woman gave birth alone, without any medical assistance, in her prison cell in HMP Bronzefield prison in Surrey. Her calls for help were ignored, and her child – known as Baby A – died. A Prisons and Probation Ombudsman report found a series of failings in the teenager’s treatment. Prison staff working on her block were not aware that she was due to give birth imminently, and no one had a full history of her pregnancy.
In 2020, a 31-year-old woman gave birth to a premature baby in the toilet of her prison cell in HMP Styal in Cheshire. The baby died following delays in getting medical care immediately after the birth and failure to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). The mother’s solicitor said expert evidence revealed the baby could have survived if she had received immediate medical care.
Research from the Nuffield Trust found that one in 10 imprisoned women who give birth in prison do not make it to hospital, and give birth in their cell or in transit to the hospital. Moreover, the Ombudsman report into the death of Baby A in HMP Bronzefield in 2019 found that all pregnancies in prison are:
high risk by virtue of the fact that the woman is locked behind a door for a significant amount of time.
Meanwhile, several countries – including Brazil and Mexico – have specific laws to prevent the incarceration of pregnant women. Yet the UK government has failed to follow suit.
‘Never a safe place’
Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, told the Canary:
Prison will never be a safe place for pregnant woman… [However] there’s nothing that mandates a judge to take pregnancy into consideration when sentencing a woman. We know that pregnant women in prison are five times more likely to suffer a stillbirth, and twice as likely to give birth to a premature baby that will need special care. Ultimately, sending any pregnant woman to prison is a barbaric practice.
In 2022, Level Up, the Royal College of Midwives, Tommy’s, and other organisations wrote an open letter to then-justice secretary Brandon Lewis and the chair of the Sentencing Council. It called for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women. However, the latest figures show that 50 pregnant women gave birth within the prison system in 2021-22. So, it seems the government is doing little to prevent these vulnerable women from entering prison in the first place.
Research from the Prison Trust shows that 72% of women sentenced to prison are given short sentences for non-violent offences. Theft is the most common offence. It estimated that around 60% of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse. The research said 71% of them live with a mental health condition. Moreover, 48% of the women in prison committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use.
Starling further said:
the stories of pregnant women in prisons are often ones of poverty and trauma and a desperate need of support, not incarceration.
There are also significant numbers of women in prison on remand. Suzy (we’ve changed her name to protect her identity) is a 32-year-old mother from the Southeast. The courts detained her on remand during her pregnancy. She was moved several times from one group cell to another. Suzy told the Canary:
I remember, as I was climbing on to a top bunk another inmate telling me ‘you really shouldn’t be here’. And it was so cold in my cell. It was winter and I wasn’t allowed a duvet, just a thin sheet. The prison guards wouldn’t let me go to the gym or even read my university books. I should’ve been eating for two but they wouldn’t give me any extra food. The other women were worried about me and gave me their leftovers.
One evening I felt this terrible abdominal pain and called for help. I had started bleeding too. The officers just treated me like I was an inconvenience. Hours passed before they finally took me to hospital. I was body searched and put in handcuffs, it was so humiliating. Everyone at the hospital was staring at me. I was scared that my baby had died. In the police van on the way back one of the officers said to me casually ‘maybe it just wasn’t meant to be’. She was so uncaring. I heard them complain that this hospital visit delayed the end of their shift.
And then the next morning, I was lying in bed, the blood was still on my sheets and the prison guards shouted at me to get up and start cleaning or they’d sanction me. Thankfully the other women came to help me clean up. I couldn’t do it by myself, I was too tired and upset. A couple of days later I went for a scan. Thankfully the baby was fine but the sonographer had to ask the two prison guards, one male and one female, to stand outside of the curtain while I received an intimate examination. That’s how invasive they are.
Suzy was later released and found not guilty of the crime she’d been accused of. However, her story is not uncommon.
Prisons: a ‘terrible environment’ for pregnant women
Dr Laura Abbott is a midwife and associate professor at Hertfordshire University. She has interviewed dozens of pregnant women in UK prisons through her academic research. Abbott was “pretty horrified” by what she discovered. She told the Canary:
I met pregnant women who had become sick and dehydrated because they weren’t getting enough food and water. Some women were not receiving medication they’d been prescribed by a doctor before they came in.
There can be a culture in some prisons of staff making a point of not giving pregnant women any ‘special treatment’, but this is putting their health at risk. It’s also a terrible environment for their mental health. The women I interviewed experienced high levels of shame, stress and fear during their pregnancies.
Abbott said that around 50% of imprisoned women who give birth have their applications for a space in a Mother and Baby Unit rejected. This means their baby is taken away and put into foster or kinship care. She told the Canary:
These women are often on suicide watch, as the separation has such a severe impact on their mental health.
A report last year by the government’s chief social worker Isabelle Trowler found significant issues and inconsistencies with the decision-making process for Mother and Baby Unit applications. Director of charity Birth Companions, Naomi Delap, told the Canary:
I worry there are still decisions being made where the baby should not be taken away from their mother. Any separation of mother and baby has a profound impact. Even one (wrong) decision is devastating.
Birth Companions was set up in the 1990s. It was in the wake of a Channel Four documentary that revealed pregnant women from Holloway prison were being made to give birth in shackles at the Whittington hospital in north London. Delap said a different approach is needed for both remand and sentencing:
Practically speaking, this means a greater commitment to funding and using community alternatives, and a specific mitigating factor (for sentencing) against imprisonment based on pregnancy. Remand and recall must be actively prohibited for pregnant and postnatal women in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
Despite all this, the government is adamant all is well with the situation for pregnant women and their babies.
The government says…
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) maintains that judges already take pregnancy into account when sentencing women. A spokesperson told the Canary:
Independent judges already consider mitigating factors when making sentencing decisions, including pregnancy, and custody is always the last resort for women.
We have already taken decisive action to improve the support available for women, including specialist mother and baby liaison officers in every women’s prison, additional welfare observations and better screening and social services support so that pregnant prisoners get the care they require.
However, Starling said there have been too many cases of women losing their children after short prison sentences:
Even three months is enough time to lose your job and home. So when a woman is then released she’s been completely uprooted and lost everything.
And it’s such a vicious cycle because to get your baby back you need to have a home… It just sends women into a spiral and rips them out from their communities and away from their support network. And ultimately, in the bigger picture, what’s it all for? Truly, what’s it all for?
It would be great to see the government take their poverty away, not their children.
A ‘stain’ on the justice system
This Mother’s Day the #NoBirthsBehindBars campaign had its first birthday. Over the past year campaigning mothers and babies held protests at Parliament Square, the Royal Courts of Justice, and even staged a breastfeeding ‘sit in’ at the MoJ. But as Aisha Dodwell, one of the campaigning mothers, told the Canary:
It’s a stain on this country’s justice system that we need to even be protesting to demand no more babies be born in prison.
Ultimately, the campaigners hope that next Mother’s Day there’ll be no need to protest. They hope the government sees sense and stops sending pregnant women to prison altogether. You can sign the campaign’s latest petition here.
Featured image and additional image via Elizabeth Dalziel
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