A new report from academics at Coventry University and City, University of London, recommends legislative and policy changes for the protection of pregnant women and their unborn children under the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The report follows the death of a new-born baby at HMP Bronzefield in 2019 to a prisoner who gave birth alone in her cell, and a stillbirth at HMP Styal in 2020 to a woman who did not realise she was pregnant and was not visited by the prison’s duty nurse despite complaints of acute abdominal pain.
The report, ‘Why Are Pregnant Women in Prison?’, from academics at Coventry University and City, University of London, analysed the real-life experiences of 22 women who had served prison sentences while pregnant in England, with the aim of understanding and outlining why custody is currently imposed and exploring arguments for a change in social attitudes and the law.
Working with charities Birth Companions and Women in Prisons, the report’s authors, Rona Epstein, Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry Law School and Coventry University, Geraldine Brown, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, and Maria Garcia de Frutos, Lecturer in Midwifery at City, University of London, surveyed 19 of these women for their experiences, with information about the remaining three women obtained from official reports.
They found that two of the women had been on remand and six of the women had been recalled to prison after breaching their probation conditions.
The other women had been sentenced to between two weeks and four years in prison for various offences including: an immigration offence, robbery, drugs offences, burglary, fraud, perjury, and shoplifting - the most common offence.
Six women had been sent to prison at 28 weeks pregnant or later (late pregnancy), and four women discovered they were pregnant while serving their sentence. The authors recommend that any woman found to be pregnant after entering prison should have her sentence immediately reviewed.
The report found the 19 women interviewed were very vulnerable. Many reported experiencing hardships including domestic violence and coercion, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental ill health.
It found that the women’s experiences of pregnancy in prison included being ‘lonely and difficult’ as a result of patchy specialist care and support services, and a lack of compassion from prison officers, with one claiming she reported early signs of being in labour on a Saturday but was left alone in her cell until Monday morning. While another claimed she was told by a prison officer to ‘prove’ she was in labour through the door hatch.
There were stories of general feelings of being unwell due to pregnancy being dismissed by prison officers, and a lack of access to what they considered nutritious food or additional snacks.
In view of its findings, the report recommends that prison sentences given to pregnant women should either be deferred or suspended, or replaced with community orders, and if custodial sentences are deemed unavoidable for reasons of public protection, those reasons must be justified in open court.
It recommends the government scraps its current plan to invest £150 million in 500 new prison places for women, and divert some of the funds into Women’s Centres, and other facilities and support in the community.
Rona Epstein, lead author of the report, said: “Imprisonment for pregnant women may not always be necessary, it is the choice made by the legal system of each country. Eleven countries have already enacted laws to prevent pregnant women from entering prison, among them the Russian Federation, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
“The prison environment is often unsuitable for pregnant women and can be dangerous for the unborn child, and there needs to be a complete rethink if the outcomes are to be improved for pregnant women, many of whom will be vulnerable, who find themselves in the criminal justice system.
“Non-punitive options need to be created and sustained, and community orders should be the preferred choice.”
Co-author Maria Garcia de Frutos said:
“Our report contributes to the growing evidence that shows that outcomes for women are not equal. Studies have shown those suffering from multiple vulnerabilities face the worst of them, including women from Black ethnic groups being four times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth.
“Structural failures and lack of timely access to care and specialist services are some of the inequalities reflected through the stories of the women in our research. We have enough evidence to support pregnant women and people in suitable facilities away from prisons. We need to move to a model of care that is fair, respectful and safe for all.”
The research project which led to the report was funded by the Oakdale Trust.
Read the full report: https://www.coventry.ac.uk/globalassets/media/global/08-new-research-section/cawr/cawr-policy-briefs/pregnant-women-in-prison-report-final.pdf
Read about the project: https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/research-directories/current-projects/2020/why-are-pregnant-women-in-prison/
Notes to editors:
About 600 pregnant women enter prison each year in the UK and about 50 are in prison at any one time, with it being well established that women rarely commit violent crimes or pose any danger to society.
To speak to Rona Epstein, Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry Law School and Coventry University, email the Coventry University press team at firstname.lastname@example.org
To speak to Maria Garcia de Frutos, Lecturer in Midwifery at City, University of London, contact Dr Shamim Quadir, Senior Communications Officer, School of Health Sciences. Tel: +44(0) 207 040 8782 Email: email@example.com.
For people who may be affected by the content and themes of this release, a list of organisations from which to seek support in the UK can be found below:
Works to reduce the number of babies dying and to improve care and support for anyone affected by the death of a baby.
The Helpline is for anyone who has been affected by the death of a baby and wants to talk to someone about their experience.
Telephone: 0808 164 3332
Helpline open 10am to 3pm Monday to Friday and 6pm to 9pm Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Not open during bank holidays unless stated on the website.
The largest UK charity researching the causes and prevention of pregnancy complications, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and neonatal death.
Women in Prison
National charity that delivers support for women affected by the criminal justice system in prisons, in the community and through our Women's Centres.
Women’s charity dedicated to tackling inequalities and disadvantage during pregnancy, birth and early motherhood.
Whatever you’re facing, a Samaritan will face it with you. We’re here, day or night, for anyone who’s struggling to cope, who needs someone to listen without judgement or pressure.
Call: 116 123 for free from any UK mobile phone network or landline provider (restrictions may be in place on landlines from some offices, organisations and care homes). Open 24 hours a day.
About Coventry University
Coventry University is a dynamic, global, and transformational modern university whose roots can be traced back to its founding by entrepreneurs and industrialists in 1843 as the Coventry School of Design.
Coventry University is recognised internationally for its expertise in health, peacebuilding, and disaster management, and for the world-leading calibre of its engineering and design graduates – particularly in the automotive field.
Home to the UK’s first ‘Standalone’ 5G network, the university is driving forward its plans for a 5G campus to provide students with innovative and flexible teaching and learning to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
With 50,000 learners currently studying Coventry University degrees in over 40 different countries, the university’s commitment to widening access to quality higher education has seen it grow to cover six UK sites in Coventry, London, and Scarborough. Its transnational presence is enhanced by more than 70 collaborations, as well as a newly opened campus in Poland, a branch in Egypt and hubs in Singapore and Dubai.
Highly commended for its student satisfaction levels and teaching quality in the UK, Coventry has been ranked as the joint top modern university in the UK for the employability of its graduates and second highest modern university overall in the Guardian University Guide 2021. The Guardian University Guide has also ranked Coventry one of the top 15 UK universities for 5 years running since 2015.
Coventry University was shortlisted for University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 and named as one of the top 30 universities in the world for international students in the 2021 QS World University Rankings. The university also holds a 5-Star QS ranking for Internationalisation.
The university was ranked first in the MoocLab’s World University Rankings by MOOC Performance 2021, demonstrating its commitment to expanding and developing its provision of digital education services.
About City, University of London
City, University of London is a global higher education institution committed to academic excellence, with a focus on business and the professions and an enviable central London location.
City’s academic range is broadly-based with world-leading strengths in business; law; health sciences; mathematics; computer science; engineering; social sciences; and the arts including journalism and music.
City has around 20,000 students (46% at postgraduate level) from more than 160 countries and staff from over 75 countries.
In the last REF, City doubled the proportion of its total academic staff producing world-leading or internationally excellent research.
More than 140,000 former students from over 180 countries are members of the City Alumni Network.
The University’s history dates from 1894, with the foundation of the Northampton Institute on what is now the main part of City’s campus. In 1966, City was granted University status by Royal Charter and the Lord Mayor of London became its Chancellor. In September 2016, City joined the University of London and HRH the Princess Royal became City’s Chancellor.
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Why are pregnant women in prison?
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