Content warning: baby loss
End the imprisonment of pregnant women
Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant. In the past three years, two babies have died when their mothers went into labour inside prison. It’s time to demand an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women and new mothers.
In October 2019, a young woman known as Ms A went into labour alone in her cell inside HMP Bronzefield. She called for help, but nobody came. Prison guards found her the next morning with her dead baby, known as Baby A, in her arms.
In June 2020, another woman, Louise Powell, went into labour without medical assistance at HMP Styal. Her baby, known as Baby Brooke, died.
When these harrowing baby deaths broke into the news, the glaring failures of the prison system were stark. Yet there was nobody calling for the obvious: to end the imprisonment for pregnant women. So Level Up set about building a public solidarity movement to demand this.
There’s plenty of evidence that prison is not safe for pregnant women – for years academics and charities have called for healthcare reforms inside prison – but no amount of reforms can keep anyone safe when they’re isolated behind locked doors. It’s time to demand an end to the imprisonment for pregnant women – and it’s time to do it loudly.
After months of research with academics and midwives, Level Up joined forces with women who had been pregnant in prison and charities Birth Companions and Women in Prison to launch a public petition demanding the government put an end to prison sentencing for pregnant women. 12,000 people signed it.
In October 2021, when the Prison Ombudsman published its report into the Bronzefield baby death, the campaign secured media coverage on the wider issue of pregnancy in prison in Cosmopolitan, Telegraph, The I and Grazia, creating a platform for women to share their experiences of being pregnant in prison – some of their voices can be heard in this campaign video:
At the same time, the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was going through parliament. Amendments were debated on changes to the sentencing and bail of pregnant women and primary carers, but they didn’t make it into law.
On 11 January 2022, the Prison Ombudsman report into the death of Baby Brooke at HMP Styal in June 2020 was published. Knowing that it would be a distressing day for the mother – Louise Powell – Level Up built an online tool for the public to write a message of solidarity to her. 318 people sent heartfelt messages.
A solidarity movement of mums and babies, No Births Behind Bars, was born and staged four very cute protests across the course of the year in order to keep a spotlight on pregnant women in prison, building momentum around the issue. Every time a protest was held, the media covered it, and the Ministry of Justice were asked for comment. This has shown the MoJ that the public do not want to see pregnant women imprisoned.
No Births Behind Bars organised the biggest baby protest in history outside Parliament for Mother’s Day 2022.
In June, No Births Behind Bars coordinated a feed-in protest outside the Ministry of Justice – where we also handed in the petition. A baby ate the covering letter to Alex Chalk MP!
In June, a group of mums and babies demonstrated outside HMP Styal on the two-year anniversary of the death of Baby Brooke.
And in September, No Births Behind Bars coordinated a kids’ birthday party protest outside HMP Bronzefield on the third anniversary of the baby’s death there.
This was timed with Level Up and No Births Behind Bars’ open letter to the Sentencing Council and Ministry of Justice, demanding a change to sentencing practices for pregnant women and new mothers. The letter was launched in the Observer.
The open letter was signed by almost 100 healthcare and legal professionals, including the Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and British Association of Perinatal Medicine. Speaking in support of the campaign, the Royal College of Midwives said “prison is no place for a pregnant woman.”
The Sentencing Council responded to say that they would be evaluating their existing guidance, and would be consulting on whether a separate guideline is needed for pregnant women.
On Mother’s Day weekend in March 2023, Level Up joined No Births Behind Bars outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the Sentencing Council is based, to sing nursery rhymes and keep up the public and media attention on the issue. Working with journalists, we uncovered new statistics that found women in prison are seven times more likely to suffer a stillbirth than women in the general population.
In May 2023, when the inquest into the death of the baby – Aisha Cleary – at HMP Bronzefield opened, Level Up supporters sent over 700 messages of solidarity and support to her mother, Rianna Cleary.
In July 2023, inquest into Aisha Cleary’s death concluded that ‘serious failings’ had contributed to her death, and that, if Rianna’s labour had been identified and she had been transferred to hospital, there was an opportunity to take effective steps to ensure Aisha’s survival. Level Up worked with Inquest to ensure that the press gallery of Surrey Coroner’s Court was full of journalists, and secured national media coverage of this issue ranging from The Times to the Mirror, LBC and Channel 4. Meanwhile, No Births Behind Bars gathered outside the court to demonstrate public solidarity with Rianna Cleary.
In September 2023, the Sentencing Council opened a public consultation on whether they should introduce a new mitigating factor for pregnancy.
Latest Ministry of Justice figures show that there were 50 births to women in prison in the year 2021/22. In 2021, the Prison Ombudsman declared all pregnancies in prison as “high risk by virtue of the fact that the woman is locked behind a door for a significant amount of time”. By the government’s own admission, prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant.
Level Up will keep campaigning on this issue until courts stop sending pregnant women to prison. Eleven countries, including Mexico and Brazil, have laws against sending pregnant women to prison. There is nothing stopping England from doing the same.