What's it like to be pregnant in prison?

·8-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

"Prison was like living in a bad dream where you're screaming but nobody hears you – you're locked in a room and there's no way to get out if you need help. The walls constantly feel like they're closing in around you. It's very claustrophobic."

Anna* was six months pregnant when she was arrested, and remanded into custody just a day later. Understandably, being sent to prison while so far into her pregnancy came as a shock, but it was nothing compared to what she experienced over the coming months, from being forced to endure an internal hospital exam whilst handcuffed to an officer, to having minimal visits from a midwife and a painful labour, which included her mother and baby's father almost missing the birth due to officers ignoring her requests to contact them.

Immediately after her baby was born, Anna was sent to stay on a Mother and Baby Unit (a space within prison, also known as an MBU, where a mother can live with her baby up until the age of 18 months). "I went there straight from the hospital, and as soon as the door shut behind me I fell apart," the 35-year-old recalls, "I was sitting in a prison cell with a newborn baby and I had no idea what I was doing. From then on, my mental health deteriorated drastically."

Anna is one of an estimated 600 pregnant women (Centre for Women's Justice) that get sent to prison each year in the UK. But, after the deaths of two babies born in UK prisons in the last two years (Baby A at HMP Bronzefield, and a second baby at HMP Styal), Anna's campaigning for things to change. Alongside other women and mothers, she's teamed with Level Up to ask the government to amend the law when it comes to sending pregnant women, and mothers of infants, to prison.

"There’s currently no statutory duty for judges to consider pregnancy when sentencing – and this is what we’re trying to change," says Level Up's strategy and campaign manager, Janey Starling. "This setup means judges aren’t legally required to consider the health of the baby, the health of the mother or the impact that going to prison will have on both, which we believe is neglectful."

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

"Prison is not a place for a pregnant woman," says Olivia*, who was sent to prison at seven weeks pregnant. "I don't understand how judges can impose sentences without any thought about the lives that are ruined," she adds, "It's traumatising, unnecessary and life shattering."

Level Up argues that in place of custodial sentences, pregnant women and mothers should serve their time within the community. "It's important to keep in mind that community service has a better rate of rehabilitation than prison," Janey points out, referencing the Ministry of Justice's own study, which found that custodial sentences "are associated with higher levels of reoffending than sentences served in the community."

She also highlights the importance of resolving the root causes of crime, which prison sentences often don't tackle. "As a society we need to look at why people commit crimes in the first place," Janey says, emphasising how many women are driven to crime through poverty and trauma, like domestic violence. According to figures released by Prison Reform Trust, over half of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence.

"One of the biggest myths around the criminal justice system is that crime is a rational choice," Janey stresses, "I don't know anyone who, given better circumstances or better choices, would shoplift formula milk and nappies. In some cases, that is the only way that these mothers can keep their baby clothed and fed." A 2019 report by the Ministry of Justice backs this logic up, revealing that theft from shops was the most common indictable offence (for both genders), for which 34% of females were convicted that year, compared to 14% of men.

"It’s a damning indictment that we live in a society that will send women to prison for shoplifting to try and feed their family," Janey adds, "ultimately we need to build a society that doesn't let people end up there. But, if they do end up coming before a judge, then they’ll be placed onto a community program where they can access support and can actually be rehabilitated."

Despite the statistics, critics of Level Up's campaign argue that a community sentence isn't enough of a deterrent for crime. It's something which 30-year-old Suzy*, who was separated from her four-year-old son for six months while she served her sentence, disagrees with. "A community sentence is still a punishment, a criminal record is still a punishment," she says, "But babies and children are not prisoners."

Anna seconds this: "Level Up's campaign isn't saying that people shouldn't be sentenced for their actions. But we need to look at alternatives, like community sentences that enable people to access the help they need, rather than locking them away."

"Prison is a very isolated place," she adds, "when you're in there it’s just you and your thoughts. But out in the community, you have a lot more support. In my case, if I'd served a community sentence, I would have had family and friends around me. They would have picked me up and helped me along the way, and I would have had access to the healthcare services I required as a pregnant woman."

Like Suzy and Olivia, Anna says being pregnant in prison was the worst time of her life. "There's not a single person who could go there and be okay with it mentally," she says, "Having your child behind bars affects you forever, and there's not one day that I don't feel guilt for where I had my son."

On top of the life-long mental health and emotional impact, Suzy, Olivia and Anna are hoping to raise awareness of how physically unsafe prison is for pregnant women and newborn babies. "Nothing compares to the terror of being locked inside a cell knowing that if a medical emergency happens, you're at the mercy of untrained staff who don’t always answer the emergency buzzer," Olivia recalls, "It took two weeks for me to see a general doctor, and four weeks to get my first midwife appointment."

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

In Anna's case, her son ended up in intensive care for three days after suffering with breathing problems, made worse by a delay in accessing care from a doctor. "When there's urgent medical needs, as a prisoner you can't get your child out quick enough," she says.

As well as a lack of access to urgent medical attention, Level Up's campaign highlights that there simply isn't enough ongoing support for pregnant women while they're in prison. "Until a law is passed that stops pregnant women being sent to prison, there needs to be a trained midwife onsite at all times," stresses Olivia.

It's a suggestion which Anna too, would like to see implemented in prisons, pointing out that at her prison, a midwife visited just once a week. "There are numerous pregnant women, and you have to all go down together to see the midwife," she explained, "but if you don't get in the queue early enough, you won't be seen that week."

Last year, the government launched an initiative to help improve the safety of prison for pregnant women, which included ensuring that every women's prison has a resident mother and baby specialist, and implementing extra training for staff on how to look after pregnant prisoners. But, with the government planning to create 500 more female prison places, can they really be made safe for pregnant women? Level Up's Janey says this just isn't possible.

"The whole concept of making prison a safe place to be as a pregnant person is such an oxymoron because a prison will never ever be a safe place to be pregnant," she points out, "That’s because it's never going to be safe for anyone who needs urgent medical attention to be locked behind several closed doors and at the mercy of guards who decide when to let you out."

"As we know, in cases like Baby A at HMP Bronzefield, the mother was in labour and screaming for help all night, she pressed her call buzzer several times and was ignored," Janey says, in reference to the 18-year-old inmate who tragically lost her baby in 2019 after giving birth alone in her cell at Europe's largest women's prison.

As for where the funding should come from for initiatives like community sentences, Janey says finding the money isn't an issue, it's simply choosing how it should be spent. "I would suggest that the government cancel all their plans to build mega prisons and divert that funding to community services," she adds, "The money hasn’t been spent yet, they’ve budgeted for it, and now they just need to change the way they plan on using it."

In light of Level Up's campaign, it looks like the government may be starting to take a new approach, with the House of Lords recently debating the sentencing of mothers and pregnant women. As a result, there's potential new legislation on the horizon, which would see mothers and pregnant women granted bail instead of holding them in prison on remand (the process of detaining a person until their trial after they have been arrested and charged with an offence). Given that almost half of women in prison are on remand, with two thirds of women remanded in custody going on to be acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence (Russell Webster), this would be a huge step in the right direction.

*Anna, Suzy and Olivia's names have been changed to protect their identities.

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