Mothers, accompanied by their babies and young children, took part in a protest outside Parliament at this week against the imprisonment of pregnant women as a coalition of women’s groups launch a campaign to change sentencing guidelines. The protest, organised by Level Up and No Births Behind Bars, was attended by mothers who were pregnant, or had given birth during custodial sentences.
Level Up, a feminist organisation working to counter gender injustice in the UK, notes that over 1 in 10 women who go into labour while in custody give birth in their cell or on the way to hospital. They are calling for sentencing laws to be changed to that judges have a statutory duty to consider the health of pregnant women in sentencing decisions, and avoid sending them to prison at all costs.
Their campaign to end the imprisonment of pregnant women follows the deaths of two babies in English prisons in the last three years. A woman detained at HMP Styal gave birth to a stillborn baby in the toilet blocks in 2020, after receiving no medical assistance. In 2019 a woman held at HMP Bronzefield gave birth alone in her cell after calling for a Nurse but no one responding. She passed out during labour and when she awoke her baby was not breathing. A pathologist could not determine whether the baby had been born alive or was stillborn.
In both cases the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman identified failings in the way the women were treated, noting the healthcare they received was not equivalent to that they could have expected in the community.
This campaign has highlighted that more than three in five women are sentenced for non-violent offences, and they are often themselves victims of domestic or childhood abuse. This, coupled with the fact that most women in prison only serve short sentences, they say is justification for pregnant women to remain in their community, rather than behind bars.
A spokesperson for No Births Behind Bars said this week: ‘Nothing has been learned from the horrific deaths of two babies born in jail. Pregnant women and new mothers continue to be imprisoned by UK courts as part of a barbaric and outdated justice system. It is never OK for a baby to be in jail; it is never safe for a woman to go into labour in a cell, and pregnant women and babies in prison are exposed to lethal risks.’