A band of mothers and campaigners today mounted a protest outside Styal prison in Cheshire to mark the second anniversary of an inmate delivering a stillborn infant her cell block toilet – and demand an end to the jailing of pregnant women.
A watchdog has found a prison nurse incorrectly concluded Louise Powell, who didn’t know she was pregnant, was merely suffering severe period pain. Louise, 30, delivered the baby in the toilet but she was stillborn on June 18, 2020.
Today a band of protestors dubbed ‘No Births Behind Bars’ campaigning for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women mounted a protest outside the gate of HMP Styal. Louise had been serving an eight-month sentence for common assault, criminal damage and using threatening words or behaviour when she delivered the stillborn infant, who she named Brooke Leigh Powell.
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Supporters said it was too traumatic for Louise to attend the protest but she said in a statement: “Brooke is always in my heart and my mind. Two years ago on 18 June 2020 I was left to give birth in a toilet, despite begging for help.
“It has been two years since she died and still we do not have accountability for what happened. I fully support the campaign for ‘No Births Behind Bars’ and thank you for your condolences and support for Brooke.”
She gave a TV interview about her ordeal last year.
Fellow inmates and staff had ‘no suspicion’ Louise was pregnant until the baby girl was born prematurely – possibly at between 27 and 31 weeks –in the toilet of her mother’s cell block, according to a report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister in January.
She said staff made a ‘serious error of judgment’ when they did not visit Ms Powell or properly assess her after she started bleeding and reported being in pain – wrongly deciding she was having a painful period.
She concluded there were ‘missed opportunities’ to identify that Ms Powell needed urgent clinical attention in the hours before she gave birth.
Prison staff called the duty nurse three times to raise concerns about the prisoner over two hours but, without visiting her or properly assessing her, ‘concluded incorrectly that she was bleeding and suffering severe stomach pain as a result of a painful period’, said the ombudsman.
The nurse in question has been referred to the Nursing and Midwifery Council and is facing disciplinary action.
Another baby, delivered by an 18-year-old inmate, died behind bars at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey in September 2019. The prisons’ ombudsman also found failings in her treatment.
Campaigners say the only way to keep pregnant women and new mothers safe is to keep them in their communities where they can access the support they need. Eleven countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have laws against sending pregnant women to prison.
Research by the Nuffield Trust found that, of the 56 women prisoners who gave birth in 2017/18, ten were delivered before they reached hospital.
(Image: Mark Waugh Manchester Press Photography Ltd)
Janey Starling, co-director of the feminist campaign group Level Up behind a petition to end the imprisonment of pregnant women, said: “It’s been two years since Louise lost her baby at Styal prison, but we refuse to move on from the issue. Prison will never, ever be a safe place to be pregnant – even the government admits that. The public want to see an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women and new mothers, making sure they are supported in the community instead.”
(Image: James Speakman/Manchester Evening News)
Mel Evans, of No Births Behind Bars, said: “What happened to Louise and baby Brooke is unforgivable. As mothers, we know how important it is for pregnant women to be able to get to a hospital quickly, and we know this can never happen if they are trapped inside a prison. Other countries have legislation to prevent pregnant women and new mothers from being sent to prison, and that’s what we want to see in the UK. This is a matter of urgency.”
Dr Laura Abbott, senior lecturer in midwifery at The University of Hertfordshire, said: “From a midwifery perspective, prison is an unsafe environment for pregnant women and their unborn babies. In-cell births are not uncommon and women are giving birth in the prison estate, without qualified midwifery support and in non-sterile, inappropriate environments, far more often than they should be. This is highly concerning and must be addressed as a matter of urgency, so women and babies can be protected.”
(Image: James Speakman/Manchester Evening News)
Today a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) pointed to comments Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins made earlier this year following the ombudsman’s report. The minister said: “The tragic events detailed in this report should quite simply never happen to any woman or child, and my deepest sympathies remain with the mother.
“We have already implemented the report’s recommendations and important improvements have been made to the care received by pregnant women in custody. We are also looking at how we can better screen for pregnancy in jails so no woman falls through the cracks.
“But there is clearly much more to do to ensure expectant mothers in prison get the same support as those in the community – something I will continue to prioritise.”
Since the stillbirth at HMP Styal, the MoJ say immediate changes were made at the prison including all women being provided with free phone access to local NHS Pregnancy advice services. Extra ‘welfare observations’ were also brought in for pregnant women in their third trimester. The prison also ensures ‘appropriate social services support’ for pregnant women who refuse to engage with ante-natal services, according to the MoJ.
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