'The whole experience was traumatic': The reality of pregnancy in prison

·6-min read
"Prison isn’t a safe place to be when you’re pregnant or bringing up your child" - Yui Mok/PA Wire
"Prison isn’t a safe place to be when you’re pregnant or bringing up your child" - Yui Mok/PA Wire

Susie*, 35, was heavily pregnant when she was imprisoned. After giving birth, she was separated from her son until he could join her on a Mother and Baby Unit. Here, she shares her story.

I was six months pregnant when I was remanded in prison for three months, and I was terrified. I had no idea what was going to happen to me, or how long I was going to be there for. I was placed on a normal landing, and I was given no information or support with regards to my pregnancy.

There was no excitement building up to me having my child – it was more worry and fear about what was going to happen, and the stress was just immense.

Fights often happen in the prison courtyard, so I refused to go outside during those three months – the midwife had to put me on Vitamin D supplements. Being heavily pregnant puts you in a vulnerable position, and I wasn’t going to put myself in the mix.

The food was basic prison food, and I wasn’t given extra nutrients for my pregnancy; I had to rely on my cellmate, who worked in the kitchen, to bring me fruit.

Luckily there were other pregnant women in the prison too, and they were my saviour, because there was no support among the staff. There's no respect for your pregnancy; they just see you as an ordinary prisoner.

When I had to attend hospital appointments for ultrasounds, I was handcuffed and escorted by officers. One time, when I went to the hospital for an internal examination, the doctor actually had to tell the officer to leave the room and uncuff me.

I went into labour at about 5.30am. When I pressed the call bell in my cell, I was told that someone would be there soon. They didn't come until 7:30am, and by this time I was pacing up and down the cell as my pain got worse.

When they unlocked my door, they told me that I had to wait to see a nurse, so that she could confirm that I was in labour. She arrived at 10:30am. She took my blood pressure, and only then did they call an ambulance.

I was patted down and handcuffed in the ambulance. Hours later, I gave birth to my son in the hospital – but something that should’ve been a happy experience was probably one of the worst of my life.

Two officers were present while I gave birth. I wanted to breastfeed my son, but one of the officers was male, and I just felt so uncomfortable. Everything was taken away from me, all of my choices; I even had to beg them to let my family and my son’s father know I was in labour. It was horrible.

My son’s birth was a bittersweet moment, because he was safe and healthy, but I was absolutely heartbroken at the situation he’d been born into.

We spent a week together in the Mother and Baby Unit, but I didn’t see any doctors or midwives for a week. I was escorted to my cell, the door was shut, and I was left with a newborn baby, a pack of nappies, and a couple of baby grows – that was it. I just broke down into tears.

Afterwards they allowed me to return home on bail for three months. It was like a grey cloud had been lifted – I was on an electronic curfew, but now I could take my son for walks and bond with him. This was short-lived, though, because then I was sentenced to return to prison.

I was then separated from my son for five weeks. He stayed with my mum while I was in prison, and meanwhile I was applying for him to join me on the Mother and Baby Unit.

My mum took him to see me, but I stopped the visits because it broke my heart. He would cry as they left, and I was an emotional wreck when I had to say goodbye – when I had him in my arms I just didn’t want to let him go.

It was horrible to be apart from my son, and I was thinking of him constantly. I didn’t know what was happening outside, and I was missing key milestones in his life. I missed his first tooth, and I missed when he started babbling and waving his hands around.

I was eventually granted a place in the Mother and Baby Unit, and my son stayed with me for 11 months. I was so happy to have him back, but even then, there was no certainty; you never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next. And as well as me being stuck behind doors, he was too.

In the unit, you’re not allowed to make any decisions for your child, even down to when and what they eat. He was allowed on trips outside the unit once a week, and he attended a nursery inside with the other children, but he missed out on so much.

By the time we left, my son was one. It was quite scary to adjust to motherhood outside of prison, but we have a very close bond.

He’s now six, but even now I can see the long-term effects of his time there. He clung to me when he came home, and he didn’t really have a bond with anyone else – including his dad. Even now, he struggles to make friends easily.

In the unit he’d spent so little time outside, so when we went home and I’d walk him down the road he’d get upset by the noise. To this day, he doesn’t like a lot of noise.

The whole experience was traumatic; not just for me, but him too. Prison isn’t a safe place to be when you’re pregnant or bringing up your child, but you’re caught in a Catch-22: do you part with your child and not have that bond, or do you bring them up with you in the unit?

The best way to deal with this problem is to give pregnant women community sentences, rather than sending them to prison – that’s why I’m campaigning to stop this from happening.

As told to Claudia Rowan

*Name has been changed.

A campaign launched today is calling for an end to prison sentencing for pregnant women and new mothers in the UK, following the results of an investigation into the death of a baby in a cell at Bronzefield prison in 2019. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found that the newborn baby died after its teenage mother was left alone without medical help.

Level Up, Birth Companions, and Women in Prison are petitioning for a new statutory duty for judges to consider pregnancy when sentencing.

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