Gemma was 14 weeks pregnant when she was sentenced. She hadn’t intended to set fire to her building, she had only been trying to gas herself. No one else was harmed. She suffered from EUPD (Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder), and had a full-blown breakdown aged 30. She was on bail for two-and-a-half years, in which time she had rebuilt her relationship with her two children, found a partner, a job, and a home. And she was pregnant. In the teeth of the pre-sentencing report arguing for her to remain at liberty, the judge locked her up for several years, together with her unborn child.
She was shoved in a small holding room with 14 other women. Her medication was taken away. Instantly nauseous, she asked to be let out of the room because she was feeling sick. “You need to get used to it!” came the reply. She duly threw up.
The law takes no notice of pregnancy. The law is blind towards mothers-to-be. And prisons try to be for as long as possible. In theory, you get taken to the local hospital to give birth, with appropriate care, usually while handcuffed or chained to the bed and accompanied at all times by two guards (of either gender). But it doesn’t always work out that way.
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Layla gave birth in her cell, three-and-a-half weeks prematurely. Her daughter was born feet first. Like Gemma, she was already pregnant when incarcerated for her first offence. She was given no help or advice in prison. When she told prison staff she was going into labour she was offered paracetamol and a cup of tea. She gave birth with no trained staff present and everyone panicking. After she had given birth the baby was taken away and she was left there with no idea what would happen to her baby.
There are still more atrocious cases. Jasmine gave birth in her cell at 20 weeks and the baby died. But ironically that death will not appear in prison records because the baby was not, in principle, a prisoner. Pregnant women are so thoroughly ignored or scorned by the system that we do not even have any official government statistics on how many there are in prison. But they are disproportionately punished because they undergo a double confinement. Two people, not one, are being sent down.
A compelling crime novel published last week by Angela Clarke, On My Life, dramatises the whole issue. Its protagonist, Jenna Burns, is framed for murder, and locked up while pregnant, and gives birth in her cell with no access to medical care, all the while struggling to prove her innocence and facing violence from fellow inmates. And her cellmate has it even worse. It is, as they say in the movies, based on a true story.
Clarke has volunteered and taught in prisons and has met many pregnant prisoners (or “pregnants” as they are referred to by staff). She was chairing a prison book club when she was shocked to see a prisoner walk in late with her 13-month old daughter holding her hand. In open prisons, prisoners and new-borns can be kept together. But in 50 per cent of cases (and always in higher security institutions) the child is separated from the mother and taken into care (or possibly handed over to a family member).
Clarke notes that in the prison in which mothers could be accompanied by their children there were also prisoners that had been convicted of sexual offences against children. One pregnant woman was so afraid of physical assault that she would only come out of her cell to go to the prison library. At the launch of On My Life in London, Clarke said: “I’m a firm believer in rehabilitation and I feel like I’m making a difference.”
She also acknowledged that “it’s good for me as a writer to learn about other people’s lives.” But she remains scandalised by the conditions female convicts have to endure. She says that at the last Home Office prison she went into she couldn’t put her bag down because the rats would eat it. There were cockroaches scuttling across her desk and she couldn’t use the bathroom because the ceiling had collapsed. “Home Office prisons are in terrible disrepair and not fit for purpose.”
But Clarke says she will keep volunteering as a prison visitor because “they [the prisoners] are already abandoned and I would be abandoning them again if I stopped now”. She recalls that in one prison she went into there is a dedicated room where the prisoner is allowed to see the baby – brought in by a family member – and then change and bathe it. “And then the baby is taken away again and everyone is in floods of tears.”
The UK has the highest prisoner population in Europe. Numbers of female prisoners have been rising slowly since 2015, and represent roughly 5 per cent of the overall UK prison population. The statistics demonstrate how society has failed them: 46 per cent of these women have violent partners; 53 per cent have suffered sexual abuse and rape; 66 per cent are substance abusers, and 80 per cent suffer a form of mental-health disorder. Most women prisoners are already mothers and most are the primary care givers.
So even a short sentence necessarily splits up a family. There are approximately 600 pregnant women in UK prisons. Around 100 babies are born to incarcerated women each year. A prison pregnancy is always high risk.
Laura Abbott is a senior lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hertfordshire and provided many of the statistics above. Her ground-breaking dissertation, “The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons”, was published in 2018 and led to her giving evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament.
She started her research project in 2012 because “we know so little about pregnant prisoners. It’s a blind spot. I wanted to hear about their experiences directly.” There are 12 women’s prisons in the UK and she did research in three of them. She spoke to 28 women. Layla, who was forced to give birth in her cell, was one of them. Most were inside for short sentences at varying stages of pregnancy. Abbott says: “They’re all misfits because the prison system is not geared up for pregnant women. It’s not that the staff don’t care, but they are not trained appropriately.”
Women are far more likely to give birth prematurely in prison, mainly on account of fear. “They’re in a minority and they stand out,” says Abbott. “They don’t have the right clothing, all the basics are missing and they fear for their unborn child.” So-called “toxic stress” has been shown to impact chemically on the foetus and leads to developmental problems in childhood. So locking up a pregnant woman is liable to lead to the next generation being locked up later.
There are many cases where custodial sentences are imposed for non-violent crimes. One woman suffering from postnatal depression was incarcerated for shoplifting nappies and formula milk. Abbott has seen women taken out of prison in handcuffs to give birth and is concerned about the stigma and “shame” they suffer. She gives the simple example of how new mothers who are leaking milk are not given breast pads.
“They’ve had their liberty removed, but they shouldn’t be losing their dignity too.” Her thesis is almost as sympathetic to prison staff who simply don’t know what to do about maternity and have no specialist capability: “In all three prisons there appeared to be no knowledge that the nurses were acting outside of their normal spheres of practice as health staff or officers, or that a Registered Nurse is not permitted to act as if a Registered Midwife.” The prison service suffers from what Abbott calls “institutional thoughtlessness”.
Most prisoners who are pregnant are terrified, and many of them have only broken English. Gemma, the “arsonist”, became an advocate on their behalf in prison and a peer birth supporter, advising fellow inmates. “The first thing they did when I got to prison was throw away all my medication and my pregnancy notes and my electric toothbrush [for her gingivitis]. Nobody helps you. They take no notice of whether anything is detrimental to your pregnancy. It’s not as if there are ante-natal classes like you would have on the outside.” She was put on suicide-watch, not maternity-watch, but saw others who were in a worse state than she was because they “had no voice”. “No one can fully appreciate how stressful it is.”
Gemma in turn was helped in preparing for motherhood by a representative from Birth Companions, an organisation that steps in to give back-up to otherwise unsupported and disadvantaged mothers. “They gave me vitamins, full-fat milk, and extra cushions for the bed. A two-inch mattress on a metal bed is a nightmare if you’re pregnant.”
Birth Companions will fight for your rights, as a pregnant prisoner, and try to enforce the “Birth Charter”, their guidelines for giving birth in prison, which otherwise tends to get forgotten about. Most prisoners don’t even know about it. They helped Gemma apply for a place in one of the MBUs – a Mother and Baby Unit – of which there are only five around the UK (with 54 places). She was grilled for an hour and 20 minutes by a board of 13 people. “I was very lucky,” she says. “I had it a lot easier than all the women who don’t get listened to.”
The Corston report (by Baroness Jean Corston) of 2007 – initiated after a string of prison suicides – made 43 recommendations to improve the criminal justice system for women. Only two have been implemented. As Peter Clarke (no relation to Angela), chief inspector of prisons, says rather euphemistically in his latest report, published this week, efforts to improve prisons have been “disappointingly slow”. Rates of suicide and self-harm are still going up (12 women prisoners took their own lives in 2016). In a more rational and compassionate world, most pregnant women would not even be in prison in the first place. But I think I have a rough idea how the mind of the English judge works.
Gemma says that her judge, sending her down in the face of all advice to the contrary, said, “It’s not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment.” If you could have a cartoon balloon over the head of the great English judge, confronted with a pregnant woman, it would read something like this: She thinks she deserves special consideration just because she’s pregnant. But she’s not going to get it. My job is to treat all criminals just the same, with rigorous equality, irrespective of creed, colour, or pregnancy. So I’m sending her down, with no leniency and ignoring all mitigating circumstances, just to show how strict and uncompromising I am. In other words, pregnant women are being punished for being pregnant. They are treated differently to other prisoners. They are treated worse. They suffer double jeopardy.
The situation is at least as bad in the United States. America has almost double our number of women prisoners: 12 per 100,000 of the national population to the UK’s 6.7 (Denmark, by comparison, has a mere 2.6). The rate of growth of women prisoners in the US has been double that of men.
We rightly get indignant when Trump’s policies split up refugee mothers and their children, but we don’t mind doing just the same to our prisoners. Locking up pregnant women and young mothers is like putting a bomb under families. We are not just putting women away, we are also inflicting “separation trauma”. When she’s not writing her novels, Angela Clarke has worked with a lot of incarcerated mothers who have only just learned to read and write. “The first thing they want to do is write bedtime stories for their kids on the outside.”
Laura Abbott’s fieldwork diary, recording her experiences in prison, contains a number of spontaneous, subjective observations. “I want to get out of here!” is one. But particularly poignant is this one, written as she stands outside: “You can hear the birds singing and these little birds had made a nest in the roof of one of the prison wings. They were flying in and out, freely…you could sense their freedom as they’re flying, taking the tiny twigs and worms for their baby birds. Yet the women are locked up inside, their babies taken away from them…”
Angela Clarke’s On My Life is published by Hodder and Stoughton. Find out more about Birth Companions at www.birthcompanions.org.uk. Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. He teaches at the University of Cambridge