13:47, November 24 231 0 theguardian.com

2019-11-24 13:47:05
The Guardian view on prisons and mothers: an injustice

Shock and outrage was the widespread reaction to the death of a newborn baby girl at Bronzefield prison in Surrey in September, after her mother (neither have been named) gave birth alone in her cell at night. How could a such a thing have happened in the UK in 2019? Eleven inquiries were launched. A justice minister, Lord Keen, declared the incident “distressing” and “rare”.

So it was extraordinarily disturbing to learn, through a Guardian investigation, that far from being an isolated incident, this baby’s death followed the birth of another child in a cell at the same, privately-run prison earlier this year, and a series of other incidents in which women who went into labour were transferred to hospital late. Bronzefield is the largest women’s prison in Europe, but the questions raised relate to other institutions too.

The last five years saw a steady rise in the number of babies born to female prisoners in England and Wales (from 43 to 67) despite the female prison population barely changing. In 2017, 9% of births occurred outside hospital, presumably in cells or ambulances: far higher than the 2% of home births in the general population. Ex-prisoners report that medical appointments were regularly missed due to staff shortages. Only half of female prisoners with small babies win places in specialist units. The rest are separated.

Concerns about the Ministry of Justice’s approach to mothers and children are not limited to antenatal and maternity care. Though ministers must address the weakness of data, there is nonetheless plenty of evidence that the courts and prison service operate with scant regard to children’s rights and welfare.

Several thousand each year are affected when their mothers are sent to prison (there were 3,797 women prisoners in February this year, 82% of them convicted of non-violent offences). Just 9% of these prisoners’ children are cared for by their fathers, and a parliamentary inquiry uncovered shocking instances of women being taken into custody without any arrangements for children having been put in place. Ministers must end such callous treatment, and ensure that children’s prison visits cannot be cancelled as a sanction on their parents, which interferes with a child’s right to family life.

Recent guidance on women prisoners stressed the importance of family ties and prisons such as Low Newton in County Durham have better track records. But the shocking recent events at Bronzefield, which is run by Sodexo, must focus minds both on pregnant prisoners and prisoners’ children in general, and on this particular prison. In addition to the maternity incidents uncovered by the Guardian, four women have died there since 2016, with an inquest finding last December that neglect contributed to the death of Natasha Chin.

The destructive effect that imprisoning parents has on families is one reason why locking people up should be a last resort. For women who are due to give birth, prison should be considered only in exceptional circumstances. More than 20 years after a Conservative prisons minister, Ann Widdecombe, defended the shackling of pregnant prisoners, it is horrifying to learn that labouring women are being treated so poorly. Never again must a baby be born in a British jail.