A report published this week by the Nuffield Trust called for ‘urgent action’ to address the ‘very real’ risks to pregnant prisoners.
The research carried out by the health thinktank found that 11% of women in prison who gave birth between 2016 and 2019 experienced preterm labour and delivery, compared with 6.5% of the general population. Preterm labour and delivery carry significant health risks to both women and babies, increasing the likelihood of infection, blood loss, and death, among other complications.
According to the report, women in prison were twice as likely to miss obstetric appointments as the wider population, with women in prison missing 31.5% of appointments in 2019/20, compared to 16.8% of those in the community. The same year, almost 45% of outpatient appointments for women in prison were missed – an issue currently affecting the wider prison population due to staff availability. The report described missed appointments as a ‘long-standing issue (…) showing little sign of improvement’.
The capacity of mother and baby units were also highlighted as a problem facing the prison estate. The number of women who have given birth within the last 18 months, as well as the number of pregnant women – two groups entitled to apply for a place in a mother and baby unit – exceeds the number of spaces available nationally. There are only six mother and baby units in England, with a total capacity of 64 mothers and 70 babies, and none in Wales.
Miranda Davies, one of the report’s authors, said: ‘If the government remains so set on building new prison places for women prisoners, it urgently needs to get a handle on these specific health care issues for women and how to address them or we continue to put these mothers and children at risk’.
A previous report by the Nuffield Trust found that more than one in ten births by women in prison took place outside a hospital setting, meaning they gave birth either in a prison cell or on the way to the hospital. One such case was that of Louise Powell, who gave birth in her in-cell toilet in 2020 after staff ignored her request for an ambulance. Ms Powell, whose daughter Brooke was stillborn in HMP Styal, told the BBC that she was left ‘crying for help’, and that she will ‘never forgive the prison’.
A year earlier, a baby died in HMP Bronzefield in Surrey after an 18-year-old prisoner gave birth unsupervised and alone in her cell despite calling for help. The newborn’s death prompted ten separate inquiries, including an investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO). The PPO’s report, published in September 2021, described the prison’s response to the calls for help as ‘inadequate’ and ‘unacceptable’ and called for wider learning across the prison estate.