A coalition of campaigners and health experts is calling for an urgent review into the sentencing of pregnant female offenders, warning of the increased risk of adverse outcomes to babies born in custody.
An open letter to Brandon Lewis, the justice secretary, and the Sentencing Council for England and Wales warns that pregnant women in jail suffer severe stress and highlights evidence suggesting they are more likely to have a stillbirth. The signatories include the Royal College of Midwives and Liberty.
The letter states: “Research into the experiences of pregnant women in English prisons found that [they] were unable to access basic comfort, adequate nutrition or fresh air, and that the fear of potential separation from their baby or shame of being made an incarcerated mother was debilitating.”
Women represent less than 5% of the total prison population, with about 3,200 in jail in England and Wales. The government says it has taken a package of measures to improve support for pregnant women in prison. In 2021/22, there were 50 births to women in jail in England and Wales: 47 at a hospital and three in transit to hospital or within a prison.
The prisons and probation ombudsman published a report last year on the death of a teenager’s baby after she gave birth alone in her cell in 2019 at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey. The woman had to bite through the umbilical cord and wrapped her baby in a towel. The child was dead by the time medical help arrived in the morning.
Data published by the Observer in December suggested women in prison were five times more likely to have a stillbirth and twice as likely to give birth to a premature baby. Research by the Nuffield Trust, an independent thinktank also found female prisoners are almost twice as likely to give birth prematurely as women in the general population.
Babies and toddlers accompanied by their parents on Saturday protested outside HMP Bronzefield in a “kids’ toys noise” demonstration against babies being born in custody, organized by Level Up, a gender justice campaign group, and the No Births Behind Bars campaign.
Anna Harley, 36, who gave birth while she was remanded in custody ahead of her sentencing, joined the protest. Harley told PA Media she went into labor at 5.30am, but the prison did not get her into an ambulance for another five hours. She gave birth in hospital with two prison officers nearby.
She was granted bail for three months after the birth of her son, but was ultimately sentenced to a prison term. It took six weeks to secure a place on a mother and baby unit so she could be reunited with her child. She said: “I have been home five years but still to this day, it was the worst time of my life.”
Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, said: “Judges and magistrates must know that when they are sentencing a pregnant woman to prison, they could be sentencing her to a stillbirth too.
“The Sentencing Council has the power to prevent the senseless, needless harm that the prison system causes to pregnant women, new mothers and babies. It’s time the UK stopped the inhumane practice of imprisoning pregnant women, mothers and babies.”
Kath Abrahams, chief executive of Tommy’s, the pregnancy charity, said: “Tommy’s believes everyone should have equitable access to good maternity care, no matter who they are or where they are based. The shocking statistics on pregnant women in prison and their babies show prison is not a safe place to be pregnant.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We now have specialist mother and baby liaison officers in every women’s prison, have put in place additional welfare observations and carry out better screening and social services support so that pregnant prisoners get the care they require.
“The number of women entering prison has fallen by 24 per cent since 2010 and we are investing millions into community services like women’s centers and drug rehabilitation so even fewer women end up there.”