Vulnerable pregnant women are being imprisoned for non-violent offences, in some cases within just a few weeks of their babies’ due date, according to new research set to be published on Monday.
It comes as a woman whose baby was stillborn in a prison toilet told the Observer that she will bring a lawsuit for breaches of human rights and discrimination because she did not receive the same standard of care as she could have expected in the community.
Academics who examined the experiences of 22 women who were pregnant while serving time in English prisons have called for alternatives to custodial sentences to avoid putting expectant mothers and unborn babies at risk. The women were sentenced for offences including robbery, drug offences, burglary, fraud and shoplifting. All but two of the offences were non-violent.
Six of the women were sent to prison at 28 weeks pregnant or later and three were 36 weeks pregnant.
The lead author, Rona Epstein of Coventry University, said the imprisonment of pregnant women was “unnecessary” and called for the use of community orders or suspended sentences instead.
“The women we surveyed arrived in prison with a variety of complex needs stemming from poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and substance misuse,” she said. “The prison environment only adds another layer of trauma for these women and can be dangerous for the unborn child.”
Naomi Delap, director of the charity Birth Companions, said: “This vital research shows, despite repeated assurances, prison should only be used as a last resort, pregnant women are being incarcerated for non-violent offences, sometimes very close to their babies’ due dates.
“Many sentences are short enough to warrant a community sentence but long enough to destroy a woman’s life and expose her and her unborn baby to the risks of the prison system.”
About 600 pregnant women enter UK prisons each year and about 50 are in prison at any one time. The authors of Why are Pregnant Women in Prison? began their study following the death of a baby at HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Middlesex, in 2019. Their findings come days after a report into a second baby death at HMP Styal in Cheshire.
Louise Powell, who did not know she was pregnant, spent several hours in labour “begging” for help on 18 June 2020. But a prison nurse failed to visit her despite three emergency calls, including one from a guard saying she “looked six months pregnant”. Her baby girl was unresponsive after a breach birth in a prison toilet.
The prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister found there were missed opportunities to establish she needed urgent clinical attention. A nurse has been referred to the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
Speaking for the first time following the report, Powell told the Observer: “There were missed opportunities from prison staff… not thinking it was an emergency when I was begging for help. The health block was a 15-second walk away – they could have taken me there.”
A baby died in HMP Bronzefield, Middlesex, in 2019. Photograph: Mark Harvey/Alamy
Her lawyer, Jane Ryan of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, said expert evidence suggested the baby, named Brooke, could have survived had the response been different. Ryan, who is supporting Powell in bringing a discrimination case, explained: “Prisoners are entitled to the same standard of care as they would expect in the community.”
Powell, who had been in prison for the first time after admitting common assault, harassment and criminal damage, said: “If I hadn’t been in prison, I would have dialled 999 because I knew it was a pain I hadn’t felt before. I felt like I was dying. I would have got to hospital when the pain first started.
“My opinion is, having seen the expert evidence, that my baby could have survived and been alive today if I’d got to hospital sooner. I had felt her kicking earlier in the day.” She added: “I need accountability and I need to get justice for my daughter.”
Data collected by the Observer found that jailed women in the UK are five times more likely to have a stillbirth as those living in the community.
While the death of a baby in prison is rare, the Coventry University research echoes concerns raised by reports into the tragedies at Bronzefield and Styal, including delays in responding to women in labour or pain.
One woman, Jodie, who was in prison for the first time on drug offences, wrote: “I was ignored and not believed that I was in labour. I was not responded to when I rang my cell bell… I was left from Saturday night to Monday morning in labour alone in my cell. The whole experience was traumatising.”
Another woman, Ursula, said she constantly worried about her safety and was not listened to when she felt something was wrong.
Maria Garcia de Frutos, a lecturer in midwifery at City, University of London and co-author of the report, said: “Structural failures and lack of timely access to care and specialist services are some of the inequalities reflected in our research.”
The authors said it was “very concerning” that a woman who had experienced a possible placental abruption at 30 weeks and had a premature birth missed some midwifery appointments due to staff shortages at the prison. Her baby went on to spend nine weeks on a neonatal intensive care unit.
Delap said: “These findings contribute to evidence that there are near misses and serious incidents happening behind locked doors but, because they don’t result in the death of a baby, the public don’t hear about them. There is a hidden healthcare crisis among pregnant prisoners which is not properly scrutinised.”
The government has plans to build 500 new prison cells for women. But the chief executive of the charity Women in Prison, Kate Paradine, said: “There is another way – when women are supported in the community, they have better access to care and can tackle the issues that sweep them into crime in the first place, like trauma, domestic abuse and poverty.”
Eleven countries, including Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, already have laws to prevent pregnant women from going to prison.
Spectrum Community Health CIC said it accepted the findings of the PPO report and was working closely with staff at HMP Styal to further enhance the care and support women receive when entering prison.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While custody should remain the last resort for most women, we have made significant improvements to support female offenders, including pregnant women. Our new prison places will give them greater access to education, healthcare and employment and we are introducing specialist mother and baby liaison officers across the estate.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to Ms Powell and are also looking at how we can better screen for pregnancy in jails so no woman falls through the cracks.”
The government is working with NHS England to provide guidance for prison staff on how to respond in the event of an unexpected birth.