It’s Time to Stop Imprisoning Pregnant Offenders

Lauren Davison examines the risks associated with pregnancy within prison, and how this can be addressed to protect prisoners and their children. This continues our output following on from International Women’s Day and throughout Women’s History Month. 

Every year, 600 offenders enter the prison system whilst pregnant. In fact, at any one time, there are 50 pregnant prisoners in England and Wales. In the year ending March 2021, figures from the Ministry of Justice have shown that 31 offenders gave birth in prison. Within this group, most are non-violent offenders who pose low levels of risk to the public, but despite this, some are still sent to prison mere weeks before their due dates. 

The tragic case of Louise Powell is probably the most recent and well-known. Whilst in prison, Louise, who did not know she was pregnant, went into labour and ended up delivering her baby, stillborn and breech, on the floor of the prison toilets. Prior to this, she had begged prison staff three times to arrange for her to visit prison nurses to receive the care she was entitled to. It never materialised. 

Another case is that of an unnamed teenager, jailed at HMP Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in Europe. Her baby died after the vulnerable 18-year-old was left alone to give birth in her cell. Prison staff displayed a total lack of compassion for the teenager - who was reportedly terrified about her child being taken away from her, but was instead labelled “difficult”. Prison staff put her on extended observation, which meant she should have been checked regularly - but this never happened. It was only when two fellow prisoners alerted staff about the presence of blood in her cell, that staff intervened. 

In both of these cases, had both women received the care they were entitled to, just as any other pregnant person would be outside of prison, the outcome may have been different. It is known that pregnant offenders are 5x more likely to suffer stillbirths. However, this isn’t just about babies dying during birth - there are many different poor outcomes that may be inflicted on a developing child in the womb or the pregnant prisoner, if the proper care is not arranged. For example, a female prisoner suffered a placental abruption at 30 weeks - due to staff shortages, this was missed and her baby then spent 9 weeks in neonatal intensive care.

As a result of numerous similar incidents, many academics, the Royal College of Midwives, and organisations such as Level Up and Women in Prison have called for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant offenders. Rightly so. Pregnancy can be an incredibly difficult time outside of prison - and these difficulties can be amplified inside prison walls, particularly when it comes to accessing healthcare and support. 

Additionally, by imprisoning pregnant offenders, children are being punished for the actions of their parents, and are spending the first 18 months of their lives in a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU). These units aim to allow offenders to spend the first year and a half with their child, rather than being separated. For some, this may be ideal and provide stability and support if they have complex lives outside of prison (for example suffering domestic abuse, as we know many female offenders do).

However, the support they offer can easily be replicated (and improved upon) outside of a prison setting. If pregnant offenders were not imprisoned, they could still be identified by the justice system if they already knew they were expecting a child, and receive targeted, tailored support. Diversion from prison would allow for these issues to be addressed in the community. We already know that children of prisoners face worse outcomes than their peers, such as a higher risk of offending themselves, mental health issues and poor educational attainment. How much worse would these factors be if a child spent their pivotal developmental years institutionalised in an MBU? 

So what are the solutions? Firstly this is a broad question which doesn’t reflect the complexity and individualised approach that needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Some offenders, even if pregnant, present more risk to the public than others. 

In the rare case of a violent and dangerous offender who cannot reasonably be managed in the community, all new AFAB inmates should be offered a pregnancy test. Whilst this wouldn’t lead to their release, it would ensure that appropriate care and monitoring could be provided, rather than discovering a pregnancy when it is too late. 

However, a starting point would be a greater use of community sentences, suspended sentences, or more restorative techniques. Non-violent offenders, whether pregnant or otherwise, should for the most part not be in prison. The difficulty for those who administer justice is that the public often has very little trust in non-penal punishment. The politicians who create policy and set the agenda on the justice system are reliant on the very same public to retain their jobs - and, so, their backing for ‘radical’ reforms like this may not come easily.

Lauren is the Vice Chair of the Criminal Justice Network, and West Midlands YF. She is currently co-Policy Officer for Open Labour. As a criminologist, she has a strong interest in prison policy and drug reform. She tweets at @Lauren2212x.

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