No Births Behind Bars protest, Parliament Square No Births Behind Bars protest, Parliament Square. Photo: @we_level_up / Twitter

Following the deaths of newborn babies in prisons, a new campaigning organisation protested outside Parliament against the incarceration of pregnant women, reports Feyzi Ismail

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. The campaign’s first protest was held in Parliament Square on Monday, the day after Mother’s Day, in order to mobilise new parents. Mel Evans, one of the organisers of the protest, believes that parents of young children in particular can be a powerful voice to advocate that no woman should have to give birth or look after a new baby in jail.

She said she was horrified when she heard about the deaths of the babies in prison, having just had a baby herself. She got together with others in her National Childbirth Trust (NCT) group, reached out to the key organisations already working on the issue – Women in Prison, Birth Companions and Level Up – and put word out as far and wide as possible. She said:

‘Three out of five women who are in prison are there for sentences of 6 months or less – and the timing is crucial here. It’s just not safe for a baby to start their life behind bars, that’s terrible, whatever someone has done. The idea that you would not give someone bail when they are pregnant is ridiculous.’

Evans also wanted to take action because she herself could have been in the position of being pregnant and in prison. Four years ago, Evans and Emma Hughes were convicted and sentenced for attempting to prevent a deportation flight leaving Stansted bound for West Africa. Emma was in her third trimester of pregnancy and on trial for 10 weeks. They were convicted, along with other activists – who together became known as the Stansted 15 – and Emma was facing the prospect of being separated from her baby, all for trying to protect vulnerable migrants from deportation. The conviction was ultimately overturned – a victory for protest everywhere – but Evans and Hughes decided to try and mobilise.

Speaker after speaker at the protest argued that the only way to prevent deaths and keep pregnant women safe was to stop them from going to prison in the first place. Campaigners are calling on the government to strengthen the law to ensure that judges have to consider pregnancy or parenthood before issuing sentences. Ultimately, they argue, sentences for pregnant women must be deferred altogether.

Kate Paradine from Women in Prison suggests that the government should instead prioritise investment in women’s centres, social housing, education and healthcare. Evans agrees:

‘We’ve got to start from a point where we’re supporting and tackling the causes of crime, ensuring that women who are at risk of going to prison can access support in their communities, including training and counselling.

‘All of this speaks to the wider issue of women in prison in the first place and the utility of prisons in their entirety. There is a strong case that there should be no women’s prisons at all. Meanwhile, the government is planning to build more of them. Rather the government should be spending that money on building women’s centres across the country – these are the kind of spaces that can support women and deal with the causes that can prevent crime at its root.’

Women who have experienced pregnancy in prison also speak of the stress and trauma of being behind bars, often handcuffed, even if the worst doesn’t happen. The trauma to both mother and child can be long-lasting. Yet this government is still sending pregnant women to prison knowing the risks. According to NHS data, the number of babies born to women serving prison sentences increased from 43 in 2013/14 to 67 in 2018/19, but government figures are unclear. One in 10 pregnant women give birth in their cell or on the way to hospital, states a Nuffield Trust health report from 2020. Roughly a third of pregnant women in prison miss antenatal appointments.

Over 50 babies were present at the protest, with parents and organisers now discussing next steps. A national meeting is being organised to take the campaign forward, keep the urgency of the issue in the wider public and get more people involved. The joint petition with Level Up calling on the government to legislate against the imprisonment of pregnant women now has over 10,000 signatures.

Evans says that wider questions can be asked of the whole prison system.

‘It doesn’t actually make things better for anyone and it tends to deepen people’s problems and alienate them further. When you take someone out of their family and their community, those people are also punished. What do prisons actually do in the first place? We’re starting from the blunt edge of this: get these women out now.’

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Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU