How many more babies must die before England stops jailing pregnant women?

There is always an alternative to a custodial sentence. No court decision should endanger the life of an unborn child

In the past three years, two babies born inside English prisons have died. In September 2019, a woman, now known as Ms A, gave birth alone in her cell at HMP Bronzefield and the baby died. In July 2020, a baby was stillborn at HMP Styal. Prison will never be a safe place for pregnant women, so why are our courts still sending them there?

Geraldine Brown, Maria Garcia de Frutos and I set about trying to answer that question. Our research into pregnancy in English prisons (there are no women’s prisons in Wales), published this week, has convinced me that imprisoning pregnant women is disproportionate, cruel and simply unnecessary.

Most of the 22 women who responded to our survey were in prison because they had been recalled by the probation service, which means that at the end of a prison term they were placed under probation supervision for one year, but then breached their probation conditions so were sent back inside. Some of these “breaches” included a missed probation appointment, changing address and shoplifting (in this case, committed by a woman who was 30 weeks pregnant and was homeless, living in a car park – she was returned to prison for 11 weeks).

Two women were in prison on remand, awaiting their trial. The most common offence was shoplifting. Four were there for drug offences. Other offences included fraud, perjury, robbery and affray. Five of the women were sent to prison at a very late stage of pregnancy: three at 36 weeks, one at 35 weeks and one at 30 weeks.

Sending pregnant women to prison is unnecessary. Multiple countries, including Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia already have laws to prevent pregnant women going to prison. It is time for the UK to follow their example.

English courts can and should use alternatives to imprisonment for pregnant women. If they were given community orders instead, the probation service would help them to access support, training, education and counselling at women’s centres, which offer support in a non-punitive setting. This kind of support is proven to be effective in helping women turn around lives that were previously chaotic.

Non-punitive residential options, along the lines of therapeutic communities such as the Jasmine Mother’s Recovery in Plymouth and Phoenix Futures in Sheffield, should be created and sustained across England. I spent two days at Jasmine with the mothers and staff, and saw the nursery full of babies. The work they do is life-saving. It is accepting, non-judgmental and trauma-informed. This is what pregnant women in the criminal justice system need. In this all-female setting, women find protection from domestic violence, they care for themselves and for each other, for their unborn child, and for the baby once born. They receive highly skilled peer-mentoring and group counselling, which has proven to be effective in treating addiction.

Out of court disposals are another alternative that police forces can use. They divert women from the criminal justice system, and, with the help of women’s centres, help them deal with difficult issues with their lives and avoid conflict with the law.

The law must change. Whenever a pregnant woman is in court, a protocol should be activated to alert the court to issues concerning the need to protect pregnant women, mothers and their children. There must be absolutely no committal to custody on remand (which means they are held until they appear in court), or sentencing of a pregnant woman without a full assessment of dependent children or pregnancies by way of a bail information report or a pre-sentence report.

Level Up, Birth Companions and Women in Prison are campaigning to change sentencing laws so that no pregnant woman will be sent to prison, and have launched a petition calling for Dominic Raab, the justice minister, to change sentencing laws.

The starting point must be that no pregnant woman should be in custody. If custody is decided upon, the reasons must be stated and justified in open court. The mother whose baby died in Bronzefield prison was there on remand. This vulnerable young woman – 18 years old, eight months pregnant and unwell – was remanded in custody awaiting trial, and it was her first time in prison. After her baby had died, she was granted bail. Why was remand in custody ordered in the first place? No court decision should endanger the life of an unborn baby.