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The horrifying truth of giving birth behind bars in the UK

When a video of a pregnant woman forced to give birth alone in a jail cell in Denver surfaced, many were rightly horrified. But I wonder how many thought – thank goodness that can never happen here in the UK? And how many would be wrong.

Kathleen* was 24 weeks pregnant with her second child, when she was sentenced and imprisoned in a UK jail. At 36 weeks she was in her single occupancy cell at 11pm, when she started getting contractions. Anxious because her first birth had been early and her labour fast, she sought help from prison staff.

But, as Dr Laura Abbott, a Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Hertfordshire University, discovered in her research into prison pregnancy conditions, the jail nurse, who wasn’t qualified to make that judgement, dismissed Kathleen’s concerns.

Kathleen says: ‘I said to the nurses, I says, “I think I am actually in labour,” and they were going, “Mm, well, I’m not sure. Just lie down and we’ll check and see if your stomach’s contracting.” So, I lay down on the bed, and they’re like, “No, your stomach is not contracting, you’re not in labour, it’s Braxton Hicks, you’re in for a really, really long night.”‘

They gave Kathleen a paracetamol, a cup of tea, and returned her to her cell.

At half past midnight Kathleen’s waters broke. Her baby was in breech position. Kathleen knew that she and her baby were in danger. She rang the bell for help.

She said: ‘I was laid there on my bed, in my cell with a male nurse and a female nurse, not midwifery trained at all, trying to put gas and air in my mouth and I’m like, “I don’t want anything, I need to feel awake and I need to concentrate.”‘

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 11 File photo dated 19/11/2018 of a member of prison staff. A probation service's work with offenders remains "unacceptably poor" with concerns raised over failures to check the risks posed to domestic abuse victims and children, inspectors said. PA Photo. Issue date: Wednesday September 11, 2019. The "greatest deficiencies" in the Norfolk and Suffolk Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) lie in its work to manage the risk of harm to others, in cases where the safeguarding of children or domestic abuse is a concern, the chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said. See PA story PRISONS Probation. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

One woman was forced to give birth to a breech baby on the prison floor with no midwife while another was told her baby could not possibly be coming that night – only to give birth an hour later with no medical support (Picture: PA)

At 1.20am Kathleen gave birth to a baby girl foot first, in her prison cell. There was no ambulance. No paramedics. No midwife. No doctor. She describes the prison staff as being in ‘absolute panic.’

Dr Abbott collected Kathleen’s story above, along with case studies of other jailed expectant and new mother for her PHD study, The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons.

Author Angela Clarke witnessed the horrors of being pregnant and in jail when working as a tutor in UK women's prisons

Author Angela Clarke heard accounts of women being pregnant and in jail when working as a tutor in UK women’s prisons

She now works alongside the charity Birth Companions to campaign to improve the care pregnant women and new mothers receive in prison, highlighting issues of concern including avoidable prison cell births and a lack of women prisoners’ access to essential items needed for their nutritional and mental health needs.

My own personal experience of talking with expectant women and new mothers in a number of UK prisons I’ve taught in [Angela holds writing workshops in women’s prisons] uncover similar heartbreaking tales, including that of a pregnant woman who was too scared to leave her cell after she was physically assaulted by another inmate.

Teaching inside UK jails opened my eyes to the hidden horror of being pregnant in prison in this country, inspiring me to write a crime thriller On My Life (Hodder, 2019), exploring an all too real nightmare scenario.

Dr Laura Abbot

Dr Laura Abbot, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Hertfordshire University, spoke to hundreds of women who had been pregnant or given birth in prison and gave evidence for a report calling for reform around mothers’ rights in jail

Staff are often unaware and unqualified to deal with pregnant charges. As a prison health worker revealed to Dr Abbott when discussing an inmate who gave birth in a cell, with only herself, a male nurse and an officer present:

‘She just stood up and took off her leggings and I looked down and she’d – is it crowned? – baby’s head was just there. We kind of knew immediately then that that baby was going to be coming, and there was still no ambulance.’

There had been confusion about who to call for support and guidance.

There are 64 Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) places across the UK prison system, where new mothers can keep their babies with them for up to 18 months – if the mother . After that, the babies are either taken by a suitable family member on the outside, or turned over to social services.

Decisions on whether any one of the thousand women who are currently believed to be pregnant in the UK prison system will qualify for a MBU place, often take until the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy to be passed. When Kathleen gave birth in her cell, she was still awaiting news on whether she would qualify for a place. Or whether her baby would be taken away. She spoke about her distress:

‘To sit there not knowing whether to breastfeed or not breastfeed? Is she staying with me, isn’t she staying with me?

‘I had nothing for her, no clothes, no nappies, because I was still in the main jail, and I wasn’t allowed any baby stuff in. It was September – freezing – so I had to just wrap her up in my clothes, completely naked underneath my nightie. She had nothing.’

Nobody should have to suffer what Kathleen and her baby did.

But with neither the Ministry of Justice nor the NHS even keeping records on how many women are pregnant in prison, the exact numbers of women and babies who need specialised help and medical care at this crucial time is unclear.

The Birth Companions, and those like Dr Laura Abbott who have worked within prisons, estimate around one thousand women are pregnant in the prison system at any one time.

And though births in cells are rare, until policy changes are made and enforced, they will continue to be a horrifying fact of our criminal justice system.

 

*Names have been changed.

Dr Laura Abbott published The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons in November 2018, excerpts of which are quoted above. Dr Abbott kindly shared her findings with Angela Clarke for her research for her novel On My Life.

 



CARE REFORM NEEDED FOR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN IN THE PRISON SYSTEM

This story comes as MPS propose urgent reform to data collection, sentencing, support for children and pregnancy and maternity for mothers in prison.

A new report entitled Right to family life: Children whose mothers are in prison reveals that children whose mother is sent to prison are more likely than their peers to have problems growing up and later in life. This includes increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems, alcohol addiction. They are also likely t earn less than their counterparts as adults, stop education at a younger age than is the norm and die before 65.

The report also recommends that, other than in exceptional circumstances, if a baby is born during the mother’s sentence, they should both be discharged from hospital directly to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) and when a mother with a baby is sent to prison, the sentence should not start until a place is secured in the MBU.

 

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