This time last year, a baby died in prison. It’s urgent we demand all pregnant prisoners are released.

Cell door open at HMP Shepton Mallet

Disclaimer: the author is a member of Shoal Collective, one of the signatories to the statement referred to in this piece.

In June 2020, a newborn baby died in Styal prison. The mother was refused medical care, and had been complaining of severe pain for days. Disgracefully, this was the second death of a baby in under a year in UK prisons: in September 2019, a newborn baby also died in Bronzefield prison. The woman gave birth alone at night in her prison cell.

Now campaigners are urgently calling for the release of all pregnant prisoners, saying that they are “outraged” and “broken-hearted” by the babies’ deaths.

Why weren’t mothers taken to hospital?

The call comes from prisoners, ex-prisoners, academics, health workers, local councillors, and social justice groups. They argue that the deaths were preventable:

In both cases, the mothers gave birth in prison cells rather than in hospital. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the Ministry of Justice have refused to release information publicly about why the mothers were not taken to hospital, despite being in labour. These deaths, and the resulting trauma for the families of the babies, could have been prevented with appropriate support and access to health care, and as prisons do not currently provide such support, we are calling for the immediate release of pregnant people from prison.

The government fails to act

The signatories argue that:

Organisations supporting pregnant people in prison have repeatedly informed the Ministry of Justice over several years of the poor conditions and lack of access to healthcare in prisons, as well as the serious risk of mothers and/or babies dying as a result. The Ministry of Justice has failed to take action.

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This should perhaps come as no surprise in a system that is designed to dehumanise people; a system described by INQUEST as having “indefensible levels of neglect and despair”. According to the charity, “every four days, a person in prison takes their own life”. INQUEST goes on to say that:

Alongside self-inflicted deaths in prison, there are a high proportion of premature and highly preventable deaths in which inadequate healthcare provision was a significant factor. So called,‘natural cause’ deaths (as defined by the Ministry of Justice) are the leading cause of mortality in prisons and are commonly attributed to the ageing prison population. However, INQUEST’s casework and monitoring show that these non self-inflicted deaths often reflect serious lapses in healthcare and therefore, applying the term ‘natural’ is extremely problematic

Prisoners are routinely denied healthcare

More shocking figures from the Nuffield Trust show what campaigners are arguing: that prisoners are routinely denied healthcare. The Trust’s report found that “prisoners use hospital services far less and miss more hospital appointments than the general population”.

It goes on to say that:

Prisoners had 24% fewer inpatient admissions and outpatient attendances than the equivalent age and sex demographic in the wider population, and 45% fewer attendances at accident and emergency departments.


40% of outpatient appointments for prisoners were not attended (32,987 appointments) – double the proportion of non-attended appointments in the general population.

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable. According to the Nuffield Trust, 22% of prisoners missed midwife appointments.

Coronavirus urgency

The Canary has already reported on how prisoners have been effectively held in solitary confinement throughout the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, and how some are only able to leave their cells for half an hour per day. The campaigners state that this increases “the risk of pregnant people going into labour in cells or being unable to access maternity care”.

They go on to say that:

The government acknowledged this with a promise in March 2020 to release pregnant women and women with babies in prison Mother and Baby Units, in order to allow them to safely self-isolate in the community. Despite this promise, pregnant people are still languishing in prison. We call on the Ministry of Justice to act immediately on this promise and release all pregnant people and mothers with babies in Mother and Baby Units, in order to prevent further harm and deaths.

Release all pregnant prisoners

The signatories are only asking that pregnant women are treated with the humanity and respect they deserve. They say that:

Throughout pregnancy, people should be provided with care and support towards optimal well-being, safety, and dignity for themselves and their infant. Prison cannot and will not ever be able to provide this.

The government needs to listen to campaigners and stick to its promise of releasing pregnant prisoners. Otherwise it will have more blood on its hands if babies continue to unnecessarily die in prison.

Featured image via Rodw /Wikimedia Commons

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