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Pregnant women are being neglected in the UK’s overstretched prison service

4 min read

The death of a newborn in a prison cell might have been avoided if Government ensured pregnant inmates received proper healthcare, writes Baroness Hussein-Ece

A report appeared in the media a few weeks ago that a prisoner had given birth alone in her cell at night. Tragically, when prison staff finally visited the woman’s cell in the morning, the baby was unresponsive. The ambulance service was called at 8.30am and it was later confirmed the baby had died.

How could this possibly happen?

It happened in HMP Bronzefield, Britain’s largest female prison. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a chapter in a Charles Dickens novel, and not something that could occur in our prison service in 2019.

We learn that several investigations are now taking place into the “unexplained” death of the baby at HMP Bronzefield, which can house up to 557 inmates. And we also learn that around 70% of the prison population have some form of mental health problem.

How was it possible for a woman in the late stages of pregnancy to go into labour and give birth in a cell with no attention from prison or medical staff? A prison that was judged to be “overwhelmingly safe” in February of this year.

This apparent neglect intensifies previously expressed concerns about the safety of pregnant women in the UK’s overstretched prison service.

Despite the commitment in the Government’s female offender strategy, published last year, to reduce the women’s prison population, it has in fact been increasing.

As of 18 October 2019 there were 3,827 women in prison, but I was shocked to learn that we do not know how many of them might be pregnant, because the number of pregnant women and babies in prison is not currently known or recorded – neither is what happens to them.

This needs to be urgently addressed.

“How was it possible for a woman to give birth with no attention from prison or medical staff?” 

Female prisoners are among the most vulnerable sections of the population. They are overwhelmingly in prison for non-violent offences such as theft, with many inmates homeless at the time they are sentenced.

According to the campaigning organisation Women in Prison, 39% report having a drugs problem and 24% an alcohol problem when arriving in prison, and the majority (57%) have experienced domestic abuse.

It’s clear to any healthcare professional that these women would be regarded as high-risk and in greater need of support and care during their pregnancies than the general population.

Laura Abbott, a senior lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hertfordshire, has carried out research into the experience of pregnant women in prison, and found that there appears to be confusion as to whose role it is to take care of pregnant women in prison, and that prison staff are being put under additional pressure and are ill-informed of their responsibilities.

Surely just as the welfare of a woman in prison remains the responsibility of the prison service, then they must also have responsibility for her unborn child?

The prison system has been described as being at crisis point. In her research, Laura Abbott found that staff were often unaware of whose role it was to care for pregnant women. This has led in some instances to prison officers believing nursing staff were qualified to make midwifery decisions.

The charity Birth Companions has raised urgent concerns, and its director, Naomi Delap, wrote to the prison service two years ago warning that urgent measures were needed to protect pregnant prisoners and their babies.

If the Government had taken these concerns on board and undertook to ensure all pregnant women and their babies received good quality healthcare by qualified midwives, a baby born and found dead in a prison cell in unimaginable circumstances could have been avoided.

In fact, questions should be asked as to why heavily pregnant women are receiving prison sentences.

Women should not be giving birth in prison cells. We must ensure this never happens again.

Baroness Hussein-Ece is a Liberal Democrat peer

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