No births behind bars: The scandal of imprisoning pregnant women

Woman in Prisonsource: Counterfire
published: 31 March 2022

Over the past three years, two babies born to women serving custodial sentences in prison have died. In 2019, a woman gave birth alone in a prison cell at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey, Europe’s largest women’s prison, without access to a midwife or any maternity care.

The baby was born in the early hours of the morning but by the time prison staff visited the woman’s cell the baby was unresponsive. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman initially refused to investigate, claiming that such an investigation was not within their remit. Nine months later, another baby was stillborn at HMP Styal, to a woman who was unaware she was pregnant.

Questions are being raised once again over why pregnant women are incarcerated in the first place. Women make up about 5% of the prison population, with the vast majority – some 82% of the 7,745 women incarcerated in 2018 – sentenced for petty crimes and non-violent offences such as shoplifting.

Researchers at Coventry University argue that women very rarely commit violent crime or present a danger to the public. Most women end up in prison due to poverty, homelessness, domestic violence or drug addiction, and pregnant women are even more vulnerable.

Organisers of the new campaign No Births Behind Bars, in collaboration with the gender justice campaigning organisation Level Up, are calling for an end to custody in prison for pregnant women, arguing that prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant or go into labour, and that babies should not be in jail.

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