An image of a pregnant woman in a prison cell

Birth behind bars: one woman shares her story as campaigners fight to end sentencing for pregnant women

Posted by for Health

From being handcuffed at the hospital to a lack of nutrition, pregnant prisoners are facing poor conditions. Here’s one woman’s story. 

Pregnancy and childbirth can be a mixed experience for many women across the world. For some, it’s a thrilling and exciting journey, while for others it can be anxiety-filled and pretty frightening.

But for those lucky enough to welcome their little bundle of joy and start their new beginnings in the safe confinements of their own home, there is a strong sense of comfort and it’s a luxury that isn’t afforded to everyone.

For expectant mothers currently in prison, this is their reality. Research by the Nuffield Trust found that just over one in 10 women giving birth during a prison sentence did so before they reached the hospital.

Meanwhile, NHS Digital records acquired by the Guardian found that 67 babies born in hospital to prisoners or women in police custody were reported in 2018-19, compared with 43 in 2013-14, with a year-on-year increase.

Women sentenced to prison while pregnant, then giving birth and even raising their babies in these confines is on the rise and it’s becoming an increasing concern as the wellbeing of mothers and babies are called into question.

“Being in prison while pregnant was one of the worst times of my life,” says Lisa*.

Lisa was six months pregnant when she was first sentenced to prison on remand in 2015. While incarcerated, the now mother-of-two faced difficult conditions, as she struggled to access nutritious food and faced poor treatment while attending health appointments.

“I wasn’t given any information about anything,” she tells Stylist.

“I was given the same prison food as everyone else, I wasn’t given any extra fruit or nutrients or anything because basically if you don’t like food, you go hungry.

“The healthcare was diabolical. I saw a midwife once a week and if I was not seen at that time because there’s a queue of women, then I didn’t see the midwife that week. Any worries or concerns that I had were brushed under the carpet.”

Lisa says during her pregnancy, she endured numerous experiences which left her concerned for her wellbeing and her unborn child’s.

“There was one ultrasound I had because I was at risk of gestational diabetes and they took me to the hospital and cuffed me to an officer who walked me through the main entrance, in front of everybody, to the ultrasound department. 

“There was another instance where I went into the hospital and I needed an internal examination, and the officer didn’t uncuff me until the doctor actually told the officer he had to uncuff me and give me some privacy”.

The concerning treatment didn’t stop there. Lisa went into labour while in prison and was taken to hospital to give birth.

It took five hours for her to get out of prison and she was handcuffed and patted down on the way to hospital.

She was taken to the mother and baby unit for a week after giving birth and later went home on bail for three months before being sentenced to 11 months in prison.

The new mother was separated from her son five weeks before he was able to join her in the mother and baby unit – a harrowing experience which she said massively impacted her mental health and continues to this day.

“I was absolutely heartbroken, mainly because I had had him with me when I came home,” she says.

“Being home I could take him to the doctor. We could go for walks and we could do these things – and suddenly we couldn’t no more.

“Before he was able to join me in the mother and baby unit, he was with my mum. My mum would bring him to prison to see me but I had to stop the visits because it was too emotional.”

Lisa was released from prison in 2016 and felt a need to help other mothers and their children who were in her situation.

She got in contact with Birth Companions – an organisation that works to improve the lives of women and babies who experience inequality and disadvantage – and has teamed up with a group of mothers, midwives, campaigners and academics to launch a new campaign that calls to change the law to end prison sentences for pregnant women and new mothers.

Spearheaded by Level Up, Birth Companions, and Women in Prison, the group has also launched a petition directed at new Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, calling for a new statutory duty for judges to consider pregnancy and the health of the mother and child when sentencing – and for prison sentences to be avoided at all costs.

“Locking women behind bars and putting a pregnant woman, or a mother and child, behind a locked door is never going to be a safe place,” says Lisa.

The campaign aims to change the outcomes for expectant mothers and eradicate some of the inequalities they face while stressing that these conditions are not healthy for mothers and their babies.

Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison, said: “Every child deserves to get the best start in life but that will never be in prison. The trauma of prison affects both mothers and their unborn babies. What happens to an infant in their first 1,001 days, including pregnancy, lays the building blocks for their future as they develop skills they need to thrive. Yet they are spending these vital days in prison.

“There is another way, the government can and must change the law to stop the imprisonment of pregnant and new mothers and do what’s best for women and their children.”

To sign the petition, visit WeLevelUp.org

Image: Getty

*Name has been changed

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