We should stop sending pregnant women to prison

Geraldine Brown
Rona Epstein and Dr Geraldine Brown
Thursday, 20 January 2022

Women very rarely commit a violent crime or pose any risk to the public, so why do about 600 pregnant women enter a UK prison each year?

Together with Maria Garcia De Frutos, Midwifery Lecturer, City University of London, we began to look for answers to that question.

Our research began with the death of a baby in a prison cell in Surrey.

The mother – a vulnerable 18-year-old woman with a background in care – was eight months pregnant and ill when she was remanded in custody to await trial. It was her first time in prison. While in prison, she gave birth, alone, in her cell. The baby died. She was referred to as ‘Ms A’ in the subsequent official investigation into her treatment.

When she appeared before magistrates again after the baby's death, she was released from prison, to await trial in the community. Why was she remanded in custody in the first place? The Ministry of Justice holds this information but has not released it. We need to know how and why this catastrophic mistake was made. We also need assurance such an error will not be made again.

In July 2020 a baby was stillborn at HMP Styal, which was also the subject of an official investigation.

"I had nobody"

With help from Birth Companions, we set up an online survey asking women who had spent part or all of their pregnancy in prison about their offence and their experiences in prison. We collected information from 19 women who had been pregnant in an English prison (there are no women's prisons in Wales).

Publicly available information about Ms A and on two further cases brought our total to 22 cases. Our study was also informed by information shared with us by a range of stakeholders with links to the criminal justice arena.

Some of the stories these women told us were heart-breaking.

Ursula told us:

I was constantly worried about my safety and if I would be released before the birth. Petrified that he would be taken from me. I couldn’t bond with my baby as I was constantly told by the staff there were no beds in the mother and baby unit so my baby would be taken. Wasn’t supported in preparing for the birth

Olwen said:

I had nobody, so from the start, I was set to ‘fail’ … Pregnant women should be in a safe environment with support/help. Putting us in prison does not make things better, I hope things get better and nobody else suffers ever again

And Bella told us:

As a new mother, you have many uncertainties and need support. And at times in prison I had to share the cell with another female that was not pregnant and I was scared as I did not know why she was there, all things were going through my heart, then I just burst into tears because I was scared

In our group of 22 pregnant women, the most common reason for being in prison was recall (six women). That is to say, that at the end of a prison term they were placed under probation supervision, but having breached their probation conditions, they were sent back to prison. The breaches included a missed probation appointment; changing their address; and shoplifting.

Two women were in prison on remand, awaiting trial. There were four women in prison for drugs offences. All but two of the offences were non-violent. Five of the women were sent to prison at a very late stage of pregnancy: three at 36 weeks, one at 35 weeks, and one at 30 weeks. 

The women reported a range of vulnerabilities, apart from the pregnancy. Six suffered from depression, sometimes very long-standing. Six suffered from anxiety, and two had bipolar disorder. There were other serious illnesses: pulmonary embolism, hepatitis C, osteoarthritis. Six reported drug addiction; three had been homeless for long periods. Four reported being the victims of domestic abuse and coercion.

No pregnant women should be in prison

Both Italy and Portugal have laws that protect pregnant women from being sent to prison. Eleven countries (with a total population of about 646 million) prohibit the imprisonment of pregnant women, or severely curtail it They include the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Georgia, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. Instead of prison, they use house arrest, electronic monitoring or probation supervision. We should follow these examples. 

Alternatives are already available. Out-of-Court Disposals are used by many police forces as an alternative to prosecution. They serve an important function in diverting women from the criminal justice system and helping women deal with difficult issues in their lives and avoid conflict with the law in the future.

In place a prison sentence, courts can impose a community order, allowing the probation service to help women to access support, training, education and counselling. Such support is effective in helping women turn around lives that were previously chaotic and marked by conflict with the law.

Courts can also defer a prison sentence, a valuable strategy for a pregnant defendant. Currently, deferral is allowed for only up to 6 months. In the case of pregnancy, a period of 18 months would be more practical.

Any prison sentence of between two weeks and 24 months can also be suspended. This would allow a baby to be born safely in the community and both mother and baby to receive appropriate care.

Non-punitive residential options, on the lines of therapeutic communities such as the Jasmine Mother's Recovery in Plymouth and Phoenix Futures in Sheffield, are examples of approaches that have been shown to be highly effective, are scalable and, with appropriate resources, sustainable.

We need a complete rethink. The starting point must be that no pregnant woman should be in custody. If custody is considered unavoidable for reasons of public protection, the reasons must be stated and justified in open court. 

It's time for change. Level Up, Birth Companions, and Women in Prison are campaigning to change sentencing laws so that no pregnant woman will be sent to prison. If you haven’t signed the petition, please consider doing so.

Rona Epstein will be talking about pregnant women in prison in the February 2022 edition of Last Month in Criminal Justice.

Book your place today.