Fifty babies, accompanied by their parents, have gathered outside parliament as part of a protest calling for an end to custody in prison for pregnant women.
The protest on Monday, attended by women who had previously been in prison when pregnant or after having given birth, or who had been threatened with custodial sentences, along with midwives and advocates for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women, was organised by Level Up, a feminist organisation fighting gender injustice in the UK, and the campaigning organisation No Births Behind Bars.
Two babies have died in women’s prisons in the past three years, when their mothers gave birth without medical assistance, at HMP Bronzefield in October 2019, and at HMP Styal in June 2020. Prison inspectors found that both mothers were “failed” by the system.
Speakers at the demonstration said the only way to keep pregnant women and new mothers safe was to keep them out of prison and in their communities, where they could access support.
The babies wore hairbands in yellow and green Mother’s Day colours and waved diminutive placards in the shadow of Big Ben bearing the words “no babies behind bars”.
There are 12 women’s prisons in the UK. Research by the Nuffield Trust found that just over one in 10 women giving birth during a prison sentence did so before they reached hospital – either in the prison or while on transfer to hospital. NHS data has shown a steady increase year-on-year in the number of babies born to women while serving prison sentences – 67 in 2018-19 compared with 43 in 2013-14.
Many women in prison are serving short sentences for non-violent offences.
Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, said: “Prison will never, ever be a safe place to be pregnant. The trauma and toxic stress of the prison environment causes lasting harm to both mother and child. It’s time for the government to end the shameful imprisonment of pregnant women and new mothers, and make sure they are supported in the community instead.”
Emma Hughes of No Births Behind Bars said: “Nothing has been learned from the horrific deaths of two babies born in jail. Pregnant women and new mothers continue to be imprisoned by UK courts as part of a barbaric and outdated justice system. It is never OK for a baby to be in jail; it is never safe for a woman to go into labour in a cell, and pregnant women and babies in prison are exposed to lethal risks.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary, custody is already a last resort for most women and the number entering prison has fallen by more than a quarter since 2010. We have made significant improvements for the small number of women who are imprisoned while pregnant – with specialist mother and baby liaison officers in every jail, additional welfare observations and better screening so they get the care they need.”