We should not send pregnant women to prison unless they have committed serious violent offences
Every year, a small number of pregnant women are sentenced to custody. Surprisingly it was only in 2021 that official figures on the number of pregnant women in prison were gathered and published.
In the year to March 2021, 27 women and 19 babies were received into mother and baby units (MBUs) in women’s prisons. The majority of pregnant women who reach their delivery date during a custodial sentence will give birth in an outside hospital. However, the unpredictability of labour means that some will give birth in transit or in a prison setting. One in 10 mothers give birth in a cell or on the way to a hospital.
Women in prison have a seven times higher probability of suffering a still birth
The care provided in prison for pregnant women has come under closer scrutiny following the tragic deaths of two babies at HMP Bronzefield in 2019 and HMP Styal in 2020, which the justice committee reviewed in our inquiry Women in Prison. The committee concluded that serious failings were identified in the care and management of both pregnant women, as described in the subsequent reports by the Prison and Probation Ombudsman.
NHS England stated in evidence to our committee that as part of its long term plan, they aim to provide a consistent approach to the care of pregnant women and new mothers in prison. This is welcome, and our report recommended that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and NHS England should set out how lessons learned are being applied across the female estate for the future.
However, as of 2022, both NHS Health and MOJ classifies all pregnancies in prison as “high risk” and evidence suggests women in prison have a seven times higher probability of suffering a stillbirth than those in the general population.
There are six MBUs in England and Wales, providing an overall capacity of 64 places for women and 70 places for babies. While the MBUs provide a vital service, the low number and geographic location of them means that most new mothers and pregnant women are imprisoned at a significant distance from their family and support networks, at a time when they need them most. Criticisms have also been made that the MBUs have an outdated and inadequate maternity service.
The tragic cases described above and the unsatisfactory provision of MBUs across the prison estate has led to a campaign by several groups, including Level Up, Women in Prison and Birth Companions, to bring an end to custodial sentences for pregnant women. The Royal College of Midwives has also stated that “prison is no place for pregnant women”. Several countries do not send pregnant women to prison and, with the exception of those convicted of serious violent offences, I believe we now have the opportunity to take steps in this direction on a cross-party basis.
The vast majority of women receive short custodial sentences for non-violent offences and the proposals in the government’s Sentencing Bill to introduce a presumption of a non-custodial sentence for offences under two years will have a significant impact on the female prison population.
At the same time, the Sentencing Council has brought forward new proposals that pregnancy should be a “mitigating” factor in sentencing guidelines for courts – explicitly recognising something that, in practice, is taken into account by most sentencing judges already. I also welcome the publication of the National Women’s Prison Health and Social Care review this month with its recommendations to ensure equity of access to the full range of health and social care services for all women across the prison estate. These changes could ensure that many pregnant women convicted of an offence in the future serve non-custodial sentences and can receive the same care and support for their pregnancy that all expectant mothers should expect.
Bob Neill, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Justice Select Committee
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