Some countries have laws against this inhumane practice, which just worsens existing trauma. Why don’t we?
Some images never leave you: one that plays itself out in my mind is that of a teenage girl discovered in bed one morning curled up, bloody, with her baby, who is dead. She had given birth without assistance. Another: a woman – who did not know she was pregnant at the time – who gave birth to a stillborn baby in a toilet, having cried and cried for medical help.
In both of these cases, which occurred in the last two years, the victims were in prison at the time they went into labour, and their babies died. Does that change how you see these women? It doesn’t for me. Regardless of her crime, this failing shows that prison is no place for a pregnant woman. It simply isn’t safe. One in 10 give birth in prison rather than a hospital, or on the way to the hospital. Women in prison are five times more likely to have a stillbirth and twice as likely to give birth to a premature baby that needs special care; 28% of the babies born to women serving a custodial sentence between 2015 and 2019 were admitted to a neonatal unit afterwards – double the national figure.
I happen to live a stone’s throw from the former Holloway women’s prison. At our National Childbirth Trust class, the course leader, reflecting on years of work in the community, told us how keen most women are to leave hospital as soon as possible after giving birth, with the exception of the women from the prison, who wanted to stay as long as possible to delay returning to prison mother-and-baby units, where after 18 months their baby would be taken away from them. This continues to be the fate of women in prisons across the UK.
Eleven countries including Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy and Portugal, have laws against the imprisonment of pregnant women, but not the UK, despite the fact that more than three in five women enter prisons for sentences of less than six months. The feminist organisation Level Up, along with the groups Women in Prison, No Births Behind Bars and others – including midwives, doctors and solicitors – are campaigning to change that.
“Non-punitive responses to women who are traumatised and often in poverty and need support are what we should be striving for, rather than just exacerbating their existing trauma and poverty in prison, and then sometimes taking their children to care,” says Level Up campaigner Janey Starling. At present six out of 10 women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse.
This campaign isn’t just about the risks of already traumatised women being forced to potentially endure the trauma of labour behind bars, it is also about prison being an unsafe place for any woman at any stage of pregnancy. Writing under a pseudonym in this newspaper, “Anna”, told of how she was too afraid to leave her cell in case a fight broke out and put her baby at risk, how the food was so unhealthy that it made her sick. She was handcuffed during labour, having waited hours to be taken to hospital. Guards refused to phone her mother or partner and watched her while she laboured. The doctor present was disgusted with her treatment.
Other women have spoken of being denied extra food even when they are suffering morning sickness, and of being forced to miss scans or wait for them even when fearing miscarriage.
The treatment of these women is inhumane. As for their babies, to be born into incarceration is a children’s rights issue. “We know that the first 24 months of a child’s life are the building blocks for their future and whatever they experience will impact their development, will impact their attachment with the mother,” says Starling. A “short sentence” for a woman is, she points out, a long sentence for her baby, and a lifetime in terms of trauma.
In a reflection of its “tough on crime” stance, the government has been resistant to change its policy on the incarceration of pregnant women. Though the Ministry of Justice is keen to emphasise the rarity of cases such as the stillbirth mentioned above, there is a lack of transparency and data, both in terms of how many pregnant women are incarcerated and what their pregnancy outcomes – whether miscarriage or stillbirth – are.
Attempts by Harriet Harman, chair of the joint committee on human rights, and others to amend the policing bill to ensure that judges take into account the best interests of children and unborn babies when sentencing, as well as requiring the government to gather and publish data, have been repeatedly rejected. “A young child’s separation from its mother when she’s sent to prison risks lifelong damage to that crucial relationship. Yet, too often, the child is invisible in the court process. This must change,” Harman has said.
In solidarity with victims of this cruel system, women with their babies have been protesting against the incarceration of pregnant women, and will do so again on 7 June outside the Ministry of Justice with a mass feed-in (“spoons, boobs and bottles”). They plan to sit and feed their children until the justice minister, Dominic Raab, comes out to speak with them. They have also organised a petition, which can be found here.
As a newborn over 30 years ago, I shared a postnatal ward with a baby who was born to a mother incarcerated at Holloway and supervised by prison guards. My own mother remembers it often. We have both long wondered what happened to that mum and that baby, all those years ago, and where they are now. How cruelly they must have been treated. And for what?
For a poetic perspective on parenthood, I recommend the work of Jack Underwood, whose collection A Year in the New Life and book Not Even This are essential reading for new parents grappling with global uncertainty, though never without a sense of humour. See his poem Fifteen Babies in My Garden: “We were just talking about the ruinous/and beautiful ways we’re going to break/your dumb old heart and totally fuck/your life up”.
I wrote previously of playing the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth to my baby in the womb. Now that the child is here, this piece has the pleasing result of sending him off to sleep almost instantly. Unfortunately, it is only 10 or so minutes long.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
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