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23 September 2021

The death of a baby born in a prison cell exposes England’s warped justice system

A pregnant inmate of HMP Bronzefield was “failed”, a report finds. For women in prisons, it is a grimly familiar tale.

By Anoosh Chakelian

An 18-year-old inmate who lost her baby at HMP Bronzefield after giving birth alone in her cell was failed, according to a damning new report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

Inspectors identified numerous failings, including confusion among different health professionals about the woman’s due date, lack of regular observation, and no response after she rang her cell bell twice.

The death of the newborn in September 2019 triggered 11 separate inquiries into what went wrong.

Yet despite the many findings, this case exposes an all too familiar injustice. In the past two years, two pregnant women who have given birth inside UK prisons have lost their babies. Every year, one in ten detained pregnant women in England and Wales give birth either in their cell or on their way to hospital, according to a 2020 report by Nuffield Health.

Although the majority of babies born in such circumstances are physically unharmed, the stress and uncertainty of being pregnant and giving birth behind bars, or alongside prison guards in an ambulance or at hospital, can traumatise the mother and her child.

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[See also: Crumbling Britain: How it feels to give birth behind bars]

Two years ago, I met women who had lived through this distressing experience.

One had been given an unexpected custodial sentence and forced to share a cell with a smoker – the second-hand smoke a danger for her unborn child. She couldn’t climb up to her top bunk when she was heavily pregnant, and had to sleep on a mattress on the floor.

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When the baby was born, she came round from emergency surgery after haemorrhaging during labour, without any family present – just a male prison guard in scrubs. They returned to the prison, and she described missing out on taking photos of her child; she was only allowed to use a prison camera, which was monitored.

Another was in labour for four hours until officers arrived to take her to hospital – her family were only contacted when she was in full labour. She was then separated from her child for six weeks while the prison tried to find her a place on a mother and baby unit.

A third suffered from unexpected bleeding in her cell during her pregnancy, and the nurse inspecting her refused to close the door and give her privacy. She also did not receive the extra food and toiletries pregnant women are entitled to in prison.

“I’m still not OK now,” she told me, three years after she’d been sentenced. “I don’t think I ever will be. Everything is taken from you – my first pregnancy was stripped away. I don’t trust anybody now, I’m scared of my child being taken away.”

As well as being sentenced while pregnant, the women I spoke to were all first-time offenders serving short sentences (the shortest was three months). A short spell in prison is enough to rob you of your job, housing, family ties and stability – and it turned the lives of these women and their newborns upside down.

In the 2019 Bronzefield case, the inmate whose baby died was in prison for the first time on remand for a robbery charge.

The majority of women who receive custodial sentences in England and Wales are given six months or less. As my colleague Sophie McBain has reported, the economic, rehabilitative and ethical case for closing women’s prisons in favour of community alternatives is strong.

[See also: Choking to death: should we stop sending women to prison?]

“There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing reoffending than community orders,” reads the government’s own 2018 Female Offender Strategy.

When unborn or young children become collateral damage from custodial sentences, the case for keeping pregnant women and new mothers out of prison is even more compelling.

Currently, judges have no duty to take pregnancy or parenthood into account when sentencing. The tragedy at Bronzefield must be the last before that changes.

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