The campaign to keep mothers and babies out of prison takes the fight to the Ministry of Justice, writes Katherine Connelly.
After organising the biggest baby protest to date, on Mother’s Day this year, the campaign group No Births Behind Bars took the fight to the steps of the Ministry of Justice.
On Tuesday 7 June, a ‘feed-in’ was held outside the government department to coincide with the handing in of a petition to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab.
The protest certainly made an impact. The pavement was taken over by a huge rainbow coloured parachute where babies fed and played. There was chanting, speeches and songs. The protest was joined by Apsana Begum, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse.
The campaign is calling for courts to stop sending pregnant women and new mothers to prison and for an end to incarcerated childbirth.
As Mel Evans from No Births Behind Bars recently wrote for Counterfire, the urgency of this cause has been tragically underlined by the recent deaths of two babies born in prison.
In 2020 a woman imprisoned in HMP Styal in Cheshire gave birth to a still-born baby girl in a toilet without any specialist medical assistance or pain relief.
A year before, a baby died in HMP Bronzefield in Surrey after its 18-year-old mother gave birth alone in her cell despite calling for help 12 hours before. The mother, who cut the umbilical cord with her teeth, was on remand at the time. HMP Bronzefield is run by the private company Sodexo Justice Services and is described by its director as ‘a dynamic and forward-thinking women’s prison’.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab did not greet the protestors on Tuesday. Instead, a Ministry of Justice spokesman reportedly issued a statement – which happened to be exactly the same statement quoted in the Metro in April, and extremely similar to one issued in March.
The Ministry of Justice’s copied and pasted claim ‘we are investing millions into community services like women’s centres and drug rehabilitation so even fewer women end up there’ sounds like a callous joke. It is widely known that a decade of austerity cuts disproportionately hit ‘the least affluent, especially women’.
These issues are linked. Most women are not in prison for violent crimes. Poverty plays a huge role in why women end up in the ‘criminal justice’ system. That is only set to worsen as prices soar and the government looks on complacently.
The time to act is now and this upbeat, creative campaign is only getting started.
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Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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