UK: pregnant in prison: 'I could feel the blood but didn’t put the light on to see'
Polly was alone in her cell at night when she started bleeding heavily. Doubled over in pain, she rang her bell over and over again, but nobody answered her cries for help. She was four months’ pregnant and terrified she would lose her baby while locked in a cell.
“I tried to sit it out in my cell, all night nearly,” she says. “I got no sleep at all, the pain was awful and I knew without looking the bleeding was worse, I could feel it but I didn’t put the light on to see. I was terrified, I thought: ‘I’m going to lose this baby here in this bloody cell.”
“The thought of that was awful so I just rang and rang the bell. Eventually they came and as soon as they put the light on they could see the blood on my bottoms, so that was it – it was a rush then. It’s a bit of a blur, to be honest, I don’t even really remember getting from the wing to the gates or to the ambulance.”
“I just remember it all coming away in the ambulance really – it was awful. Really awful, and in fucking handcuffs too! Sorry for swearing.”
“It was really, really early morning, like the sun wasn’t properly out, sunset – no, sunrise, I mean – but I’d been on my own hours and hours. It felt like the night had lasted a lifetime.”
This miscarriage at one of the UK’s female prisons is one of a number of disturbing cases uncovered by the Guardian that suggest women are routinely traumatised by their experience of pregnancy and birth in jail. Dr Rachel Dolan, a researcher at the University of Manchester, has conducted what is thought to be the largest study into the welfare of pregnant women in prison.
“Giving birth in the prison itself is a daily worry for many women, and the way pregnant women are treated contributes to this,” she says. “They are often housed in the normal prison wings, despite these being deemed too dangerous for pregnant staff members to visit.”
She found that staff were sometimes unaware women were pregnant; that women were being rendered helpless by their inability to contact a midwife directly; and decisions about whether to transfer women to hospital were sometimes being made by prison officers rather than medical staff.
The Guardian heard reports of multiple concerning cases, including pregnant women going hungry, being made to work despite suffering extreme morning sickness and having lengthy waits for assistance while in labour. In cases where women had been separated from their babies, some tried to express milk to be given to their child but had no facilities to refrigerate it or it was not collected quickly enough from the prison and had to be thrown away.
Dr Laura Abbott, a senior lecturer in midwifery at University of Hertfordshire who has interviewed dozens of prisoners, says: “I can really understand how women feel unsafe. It must be very frightening to feel you’re not being supported. **It goes against everything as a midwife that you’d want for a woman – her dignity, her safety, her choices.”**
Abbott says there are pockets of very good practice, citing HMP Low Newton in County Durham, but that the overall picture is troubling.
Women represent about 5% of the overall prison population: 73% are sentenced for less than 12 months; 82% are in custody for non-violent offences; and 49% enter prison on remand, with fewer than half of those going on to receive a prison sentence.
Campaigners say that, aside from exceptional cases, pregnant women should not be in custody at all.
Pregnant women in prison are more likely to have high-risk pregnancies owing to higher rates of mental health conditions, smoking and drug and alcohol dependency.
Yet research by the Nuffield Trust found that 22% of pregnant prisoners missed midwife appointments and 30% missed obstetric appointments, far higher than rates in the general population.
Polly, who responded to the Guardian’s questions through Lucy Baldwin, a senior lecturer in criminology at De Montfort Universitywho has researched her case and that of other mothers in custody, says her experience has had a lasting impact.
“There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of my baby … I’m going to get a little plaque and plant a tree in my mum’s garden for him,” she says. “I went to prison pregnant and came home with nothing.”
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