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 September 2019, Rianna Cleary 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, Aisha, in her arms.
In June 2020, another woman, Louise Powell, went into labour without medical assistance at HMP Styal. Her 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. Our campaign has successfully shifted the discourse away from reform and toward a total end to imprisonment of pregnant women.
In October 2021, when the Prison Ombudsman published its report into the death of Aisha Cleary at HMP Bronzefield, Level Up 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:
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.
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.
In 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 her 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:
In March 2022, 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:
In September 2022, No Births Behind Bars coordinated a kids’ birthday party protest outside HMP Bronzefield on the third anniversary of Aisha Cleary’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. We targeted the Sentencing Council because they oversee court practices – and it’s the courts that need to stop sending pregnant women to prison in the first place! 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.
In March 2023, we worked with journalists to uncover new statistics that found women in prison are seven times more likely to suffer a stillbirth than women in the general population.
To draw attention to this, Level Up joined No Births Behind Bars for a Mother’s Day protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the Sentencing Council is based, to sing nursery rhymes and keep up the public pressure on the courts.
In May 2023, when the Aisha Cleary inquest opened, Level Up supporters sent over 700 messages of solidarity and support to her mother, Rianna Cleary.
In July 2023, the Aisha Cleary’s inquest 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, a charity specialising in deaths in state custody, 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. At the same time, No Births Behind Bars gathered outside the court to demonstrate public solidarity with Rianna Cleary.
In September 2023, on the four-year anniversary of Aisha Cleary’s death at HMP Bronzefield, Level Up and No Births Behind Bars held a vigil outside the Ministry of Justice to commemorate her death and renew public calls for an end to imprisonment for pregnant women. The cruelties pregnant women face in prison are only possible because they are held from public view – this is why a public solidarity campaign on the streets is so important for driving change:
In September 2023, the campaign also won the support of Seema Misra, the former postmistress who was wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal and sent to prison while pregnant. In an interview with iNews, she said “innocent or not, it is wrong that we send pregnant women to prison”.
In September 2023, the Sentencing Council also opened a public consultation on whether they should introduce a new mitigating factor for pregnancy – Level Up began work with leading barristers, sentencers and experts to draft a submission and encourage other prominent organisations to do so too.
In October 2023, Sky News covered the campaign and included the experiences of women who were pregnant in prison. Level Up also did a live interview with Kay Burley to explain the proposed changes. The Sentencing Council will be sensitive to public opinion regarding a change in sentencing – so this kind of media coverage was a huge win for the campaign.
Also in October, The Observer published new statistics showing that one in three pregnant women being held in prison are on remand – meaning they haven’t even been sentenced.
At the end of October 2023, we gathered to chant “No births behind bars!” as Rianna Cleary walked into Surrey Coroner’s Court to attend the Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD) hearing for her baby, Aisha Cleary. Many from the Level Up community showed up in solidarity with Rianna including Seema Misra.
In November 2023, the coroner ultimately decided not to issue a Preventing Future Deaths report, concluding that sufficient changes had been made. Following the decision, Rianna Cleary read her statement on Channel 4 News, underscoring the potentially limited impact of the changes that have been made, and announcing her support of Level Up’s campaign.
This is the first time she has spoken out publicly since Aisha’s death. She said, “when it comes to prisons, what’s written on a piece of paper is never what happens in practice. The way the prisons are run, it is all about power and control. They will never be caring places. Prison officers do not always follow policy – look what happened to me when I pressed my cell bell twice – nobody came.”
Level Up co-director Janey was also on Channel 4 that day, reiterating that no amount of reforms will be enough, the only way another baby death can be prevented is to stop sending pregnant women to prison. She said: “Medical professionals agree it will never be safe, yet there have been no changes to the court system, so what we need are new measures put in place to ensure that courts are not sending pregnant women to prison. Several countries have stopped sending pregnant women to prison, and we need to become one of them.”
Media momentum around the campaign picked up pace. Later in November, BBC Politics covered pregnancy in prison and Sir Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee, announced his support for a stronger sentencing framework to prevent pregnant women going to prison. Also on the programme was midwifery lecturer and campaign supporter Maria Garcia De Frutos, and Ellie Reeves MP (former Shadow Prisons Minister). All agreed that alternatives to prison for pregnant women were needed.
At the end of November 2023, alongside lawyers, academics, psychiatrists and organisations, Level Up submitted a response to the Sentencing Council’s consultation on a new mitigating factor for pregnancy.
As the Sentencing Council’s first consultation closed, they put forward even stronger proposals to change the sentencing of pregnant women, including measures that instruct courts to “avoid the possibility of an offender giving birth in prison” – these measures, if brought into place, will mark a huge victory for the campaign. Level Up is currently coordinating our response.
In January 2024, Level Up kicked off the year with a huge campaign victory: we helped secure a landmark judgment where the Court of Appeal overturned a heavily pregnant woman’s prison sentence and replaced it with a suspended sentence on the basis of risks to her pregnancy.
The woman’s mother had reached out to Level Up in 2023, we found top lawyers to appeal her sentence and test a legal argument on mandatory minimum sentences. Not only was she released from prison the same day, the case established a legal precedent, where pregnancy can contribute to “exceptional circumstances” that make a mandatory minimum sentence disproportionate. Read more about the case in the Guardian here.
It is clear that, in the past four years, Level Up have managed to shift the Overton window regarding imprisonment of pregnant women. Our media strategy, lobbying of the Sentencing Council and protests with No Births Behind Bars have successfully turned the dial away from healthcare reform inside prison toward an end to prison for pregnant women –– support for the campaign is picking up pace and our demand has become a regular media talking point.
With this cultural shift secured, and a strong public movement behind it, the campaign now faces valuable policy and legislative opportunities.
Latest Ministry of Justice figures show that there were 50 births to women in prison in the year 2021/22.
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.