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Shouldn't all babies be born free and equal - rather than die in prison cells?

Trigger warning: This blog deals with the subject of infant death.


It was the beginning of October last year when I read a disturbing article about the death of a baby, after a mother gave birth alone in her cell, in Europe’s largest female prison: the privately run HMP Bronzefield in Surrey.

Being five-months pregnant myself at that time, I was struggling between the instinct to protect my mind as much as possible from negative thoughts, and the need to know more about other mothers’ experiences. Yet, I could not ignore this news, which was obviously raising questions about basic rights of these women, such as access to midwives, and to ante and post-natal care.

I have been always interested in gender issues and women’s rights-related topics, and one of the most recurrent points is how men have exercised their power since forever; or how, with a critical lens, we can catch patriarchy in almost every aspect of life. Patriarchy is generally understood as system ruled by men, whose authority is enforced through social, political, economic and religious institutions, and which results in a subordinated position of most women in such a system.

Image by Francesco Catania

However, this is something different: most of the time childbirth is a matter of women, managed by women. So, I wondered how there can be such a lack of human care and compassion towards inmates, sometimes from other women (for example the female prison guards), probably mothers themselves?

Please don’t take me wrong, I am not criticising prison staff or, indeed, individual prisons. My question here is: is this the result of a system that put so much pressure on people to make them focussed on policies and procedures rather than on human suffering?

It did not help me to know that, around that time (late October 2019), speaking at a House of Lords debate, the justice minister Lord Keen, said that “this distressing incident is a rare occurrence. Every step is taken for women to give birth in hospital but, for a small number, this is not possible due to the unpredictability of labour.”

Or that Ms Frazer, the Secretary of State for Justice, said that “pregnant prisoners have access to the same range of services as they would do in the community”.

It did not help at all.

So, I started researching about this topic.


Let’s consider some numbers.

Data from the Prison Reform Trust indicates that women made up 5% of the prison population in 2018, with 7,745 women incarcerated.

82% of them were sentenced for non-violent offences.

8 in 10 women in prison reported that they had mental health issues, and many other ones suffered histories of abuse.

Nobody knows exactly how many births take place in prison or even how many prisoners are pregnant, because neither the Ministry of Justice nor the NHS collects the data.

According to the Guardian, about 600 pregnant women are held in prisons in England and Wales every year, and about 100 babies are born there. In November, the BBC reported that the government revealed a number of 47 pregnant women currently in England and Wales prisons, however there was not reference to the official source. No figure was issued as of how many female prisoners had babies, and the number of miscarriages, stillbirths, or infant deaths whilst in prison.

Image by Francesco Catania

In April 2019, the HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a report on an unannounced inspection at Bronzefield at the end of December 2018. It was found that it was an ““overwhelmingly safe prison”, although nearly 70% of prisoners reported having mental health problems.

In October 2019, Baroness Hussein-Ece, a Liberal Democrat peer, stated that, despite last year government’s commitment in female offender strategies to reduce the women’s prison population, it has increased.

Numbers are one way to approach a problem. But I also wanted to understand what happened to these women, not as a number but as the individuals.

I read some stories and started feeling like I knew them personally.

I tried to imagine how they had experienced their pregnancy. Sometimes in comparison to how I was experiencing mine.

What happened to the woman who lost her child is brutally simple: she gave birth on her own in a prison cell, with no help. The local police’s statement said that the death was being treated as “unexplained” and that an investigation was taking place. Perhaps the investigation could explain why a woman in her late stage of pregnancy did not come to the attention of prison staff for several hours.

The reason why a woman is in prison should not really matter: their unborn baby should receive the same care as anyone else’s baby.

The same care my unborn baby was being given.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case.

There is another sad story of a woman who was sent to prison when she was 16 weeks pregnant. She was locked with a smoker inmate, not provided with the extra food or fresh fruit and vegetable for the growing baby, and even denied an extra pillow for the symphysis pubis dysfunction she developed.

She tells her story, these are her own words: “While I was in prison I heard of four women who had had their babies in their cells because they weren’t believed when they said they were in labour — and were only assessed by untrained staff. You listen to the stories. You see it yourself. You’re petrified that this will happen to you.”

How would we feel in her situation? How distressful are these fears?

Polly (a name used by the journalist to protect the woman’s identity) was also unlucky: she lost her baby whilst in prison when she was four months’ pregnant. She was alone in her cell at night and started bleeding heavily. She rang the bell several times but nobody answered her cries for help. When a member of staff eventually arrived at the cell and acknowledged the situation, she was rushed to the hospital, in handcuffs. Unfortunately, nothing could be done to prevent a miscarriage.

Image by Francesco Catania

Pregnant women are strongly recommended to take multivitamins daily (which help to promote the healthy development of their baby), have a balanced diet, regularly exercise, get fresh air and sleep safely — this should be the norm whether in prison or not.

Again, this seems not be the case for women in prisons, meaning that their babies will suffer the consequences of that.

Is it fair that these children are somehow made to pay for the way their parents (or, often, their mothers) have decided to live their life?

Every child deserves a chance for a better life and should not pay for their parents’ mistakes: this seems a redundant statement and most people would probably agree with it in theory. But in reality?

Giving birth safely and with dignity should be an undisputable right for all women to enjoy, whether in prison or in hospital, or at home.

It reminds me when I was studying for my MA in Human Rights and Social Justice, and I was learning how certain basic rights were almost taken for granted, at least in the developed western countries. Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, sanctions everyone’s right to life. Article 3 states that no one shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

What about these babies and these women? Is the way they are treated compatible with an (allegedly) well-established human rights framework, as it is in England?


Someone might argue that if a woman does not want to give birth in prison, she just needs to avoid committing a crime. That’s it.

Unfortunately, this straightforward logic (and potentially judgmental attitude) cannot be applied to all circumstances.

Mental health issues a

nd a past history of domestic abuses and violence are often a recurrent factor in women who are associated to criminality. The nature of criminal activities committed by women is often different and peculiar compared to the crimes of males. Most of these women need care and support more than a prison sentence.

I learnt that until 20 years ago it was the Prison Service’s policy to keep women handcuffed during labour, to mitigate the risk they could escape  —  well, we all know that during labour or soon after giving birth women are so energised that they could run away…

In November 2018, the Guardian referred to a damning report, which warned that women were giving birth in prison without proper medical care and assisted (when they are assisted) by staff with no midwifery training. Such the experience of a woman, who went prematurely into labour, and the baby was in the breech position (e.g., bottom or feet first). This was her second baby and when the woman called the prison staff, telling them she was sure she was in labour, she was not believed.

I found it difficult, when reading these stories, to digest that such mental sufferance could be tolerated, and that giving birth in such an inhuman and humiliating setting could be considered as a matter of routine, with pain and fears not being comforted, or being even ignored.

Image by Francesco Catania

Having in mind Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said that the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons, it is difficult to accept a system that is unable to dispense some kindness even in a moment such as the birth of a baby, which is something in life that should be granted the highest respect.

A new human being coming to this world deserves all possible attention: accomplishing this expectation dignifies the human nature as a whole, making the opposite a complete failure and degeneration of ethics and of the integrity of our conscience.


It is now February 2020. For all of these months, I have felt that this is something I could not let it go of and hence why I decided to write this blog. I keep thinking of these women and their babies.

It is February and no update from a possible investigation has come out yet.

I found no evidence that this topic is part of an ongoing and meaningful debate.

In the meantime, the woman whose newborn baby died has been released on bail. It seems that, when she gave birth at the end of September, she was on remand, rather than serving a full sentence. This detail makes the story even more unbearable. This is something that shouldn’t have happened.

I wonder whether this case was important enough to raise general concern? Was it just unfortunate or unpredictable?

I want to hope that the story of this poor baby could save other babies’ lives. This would somehow mitigate the horrible circumstance of this case and honour the memory of a life that was lost too soon after it started.


NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We would like to say a huge thank you to Margherita Noto for writing this incredibly powerful piece on InSPIre the Mind. Margherita is a Compliance Consultant in the Financial Services Sector, with a passion for human rights and gender topics. She has a background in gender violence, systems of social subordination, and women’s rights, after studing an MA in Human Rights and Social Justice.

If you would like some support regarding the issues raised in this blog, please reach out to the following charities who specialise in these areas:


Header image source Francesco Catania

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