‘No births behind bars’: Protesters demand an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women

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A multi-generational protest took place today on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Babies, children and their parents gathered to demand an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women.

The protesters are demanding the Sentencing Council stop courts sending pregnant women and mothers to prison.

Armed with signs, the group sang nursery rhymes in the London drizzle as they called for change.

Parents and babies held signs proclaiming ‘No Births Behind Bars’ (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

Babies dressed in yellow and green, in honour of Mother’s Day, gathered and the group peacefully sang nursery rhymes together.

The protest was organised by Level Up and No Births Behind Bars campaign groups.

Since the deaths of two babies in custody in the past three years, both groups have worked to highlight the need for an end to the practice of imprisoning pregnant women.

Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, said: ‘Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant. Statistics show that pregnant women in prison are five times more likely to suffer a stillbirth, which means that when a court sentences a woman to prison, they could well be sentencing her to a stillbirth too.

The groups are calling on the Sentencing Council to enact change (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

‘The courts have the power to prevent the senseless, needless harm that the prison system causes to pregnant women, new mothers and babies.

‘It’s imperative that the Sentencing Council introduces new sentencing practices for pregnant women and new mothers.

‘When women are supported in their communities instead, they can give their baby the best start in life.’

Last year, the Royal College of Midwives were one of several high profile signatories to an open letter asking the Sentencing Council to review court sentencing practices for pregnant women, declaring ‘prison is no place for pregnant women’.

The Royal College of Midwives has backed the calls made (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

In response to the death of a baby at HMP Bronzefield in 2019, His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Ombudsman has deemed that all pregnancies in prison are ‘high risk by virtue of the fact that the woman is locked behind a door for a significant amount of time.’

The Sentencing Council, whose offices are based at the Royal Courts of Justice, have committed to review whether there is a need for new guidance on sentencing pregnant women.

Women represent around 4% of the total prison population, with about 3,200 in jail in England and Wales. The vast majority of women enter prison for less than twelve months.

On average there were 29 pregnant women in prison for 2021/22, and 50 births to women spending time in custody in 2021/22. 94% of these births took place at a hospital and 3 took place either in transit to hospital or within a prison.

The protest was organised by Level Up and No Births Behind Bars (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

Women in prison are five times more likely to suffer a stillbirth.

Aisha Dodwell, on behalf of campaign group No Births Behind Bars said: ‘It’s a stain on this country’s justice system that we need to even be protesting to demand no more babies be born in prison. Imprisoning pregnant women and their babies is not in the public interest at all.

‘No woman should have to give birth in a cell. This barbaric practice is legislated against in other countries, yet the UK lags behind.

‘We’re a group of new mothers. We know what it’s like to be pregnant, give birth and look after a new baby. We know there’s no way anyone can do any of that safely in prison.

The group called on the Sentencing Council to stop courts sending pregnant women to prison (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

‘We’re calling for the Sentencing Council to pass guidance to stop pregnant women and new mothers being sent to jail. Prison can never be a safe place for a mother or her baby.’

Rebecca, who gave birth whilst serving a custodial sentence, joined the protest.

She said: ‘Being pregnant in prison was a horrific nightmare. The prison environment is unsafe and traumatising for anyone, let alone a pregnant woman. I was so underweight when I was nine months pregnant that the obstetrician was in tears.

‘I wish the courts understood the long-term impact that imprisoning a pregnant woman has on both her and her baby.

Babies, children and their parents rallied outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Picture: Elizabeth Dalziel)

‘Nobody seems to be looking at the long-term cost to a child’s health and wellbeing. I was only in prison for a short period, but both me and my son have been left with long-term trauma.

‘Whether the courts choose to accept it or not, our babies do suffer, and their human rights need to be taken into consideration.’

Previously, the groups have organised the biggest baby protest in history outside Parliament, and a breastfeeding protest at the Ministry of Justice.

Laura Abbott, associate professor and senior lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hertfordshire, whose research focuses on pregnancy in English prisons, said the government ‘can’t ignore the plight’ of incarcerated women.

She said: ‘Prison is an unsafe environment for pregnant women. Pregnancy in prison is not just an issue of policy or healthcare, it is an issue of humanity.

‘In-cell births are not uncommon and women are giving birth in the prison estate, without qualified midwifery support and in non-sterile, inappropriate environments, far more often than they should be.

‘We cannot continue to ignore the plight of incarcerated pregnant women, nor can we continue to justify sentencing pregnant women to prison and subjecting them to high-risk conditions.’

Metro.co.uk has contacted the Ministry of Justice for comment.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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