Letter to the Sentencing Council on pregnant women

Written by levelUp — September 23, 2022
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No Births Behind Bars and Level Up
New Derwent House
69‑73 Theobalds Road

Rt Hon Brandon Lewis MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Ministry of Justice,
102 Petty France,
London SW1H 9AJ

Rt. Hon Lord Burnett of Maldon
The Sentencing Council for England and Wales The Royal Courts of Justice
East Block, Room EB16
London WC2A 2LL

23rd September 2022

Dear Justice Secretary and Chair of the Sentencing Council,

Following the release of more data detailing the horrific picture of pregnancy in women’s prisons, and on the third anniversary of the tragic death of a baby inside HMP Bronzefield in 2019, we are writing to demand an urgent review into the sentencing of pregnant women and new mothers.

On the 22nd September 2019, an 18-year-old woman remanded in HMP Bronzefield gave birth in her cell alone. Despite requesting help she did not receive any medical assistance. After giving birth alone, she bit through the umbilical cord to free her baby. She was found in her cell the following morning; paramedics called to the scene were unable to resuscitate the child [1,2]. Her devastating case alone should have been enough to prevent any pregnant woman being held in prison again – yet, in June 2020, a pregnant woman in HMP Styal, Louise Powell, also gave birth without medical assistance, to a baby named Brooke that died.

These two preventable baby deaths should have been the catalyst for real change in the sentencing and remand of pregnant women, yet the latest data from the Ministry of Justice shows that little has changed. In the past year alone, and in the wake of the deaths of Baby A and Baby Brooke, 50 births took place in prisons, on the average week 29 pregnant women were held in prison, and 40 babies have been held in prison with their mothers. The data also shows that birth outcomes are worse than previously reported [3].

Facts on pregnancy in UK prisons:

  • Pregnant women in prison are five times more likely to suffer a stillbirth than women in the community [4].
  • Pregnant women in prison are almost twice as likely to give birth prematurely as women in the general population, which puts both the mothers and their babies at risk [5].
  • One in ten pregnant women in prison give birth in-cell or on the way to hospital [6].
  • At least two babies have died in women’s prisons in the past three years.

No Births Behind Bars and Level Up New Derwent House 69‐73 Theobalds Road London WC1X 8TA

Even if their baby does not die, research into the experiences of pregnant women in English prisons found that pregnant women faced severe stress, were unable to access basic comfort, adequate nutrition or fresh air and that the fear of potential separation from their baby or shame of being made an incarcerated mother was debilitating [7]. A substantial body of evidence shows that consequently, mothers and infants held in custody during pregnancy and infancy face serious health risks, and developmental trauma. 50% of mothers and babies are separated from each other, and even if held in a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) both mother and baby are cut off from essential family and community support at a critical time in the baby’s life.

Pregnancy and the first months of a baby’s life are of critical importance; they are their developmental building blocks for life. Psychological research has long established that secure parent-infant relationships underpin good physical and mental health and wellbeing across a child’s lifespan. Babies are highly dependent on parent-infant interactions to shape their rapidly developing nervous system, emotional and behavioural self-regulation [8], with the first postnatal year being most important. Prison will never be the best start in a child’s life. The consequences and impact of a prison sentence for a mother and her child, even from a short sentence, are often disproportionate to the offence.

Prison is not and cannot ever be a safe place for pregnant women, new mothers and their infants will not ever receive equivalence of care to those in the community. In 2021, the Prison Ombudsman described all pregnancies in prison as ‘high risk’ [9]. Deciding that a child should be born in prison, with all the known risks of that situation for the child in both the short and long term, is to discriminate against that child in breach of Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by the UK. Imprisoning pregnant women and new mothers also flies in the face of the UN Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners [10]. Prison is not and cannot ever be a safe place for pregnant women, new mothers and their infants, regardless of the small prison policy changes that have been promised in MoJ guidance. The best way to keep both mothers and babies safe is to keep them out of prison entirely.

Sentencing and bail decisions

We are a broad coalition of groups and individuals including lawyers, midwives, medical professionals, psychologists, academics and parents who know firsthand how important pregnancy and the first months of a baby’s life are in their development. The criminal courts are failing to properly consider the needs of pregnant women, new mothers and their infants in sentencing and bail decisions. The rights of the child are at stake when a parent is sentenced or remanded in custody, but courts often fail to weigh the child’s right to parental care and non-discrimination, and the consequences of remand or a custodial sentence for that child, against the alleged or proven offence [11]. The criminal courts, despite attempts to train judges to act differently, continue to make decisions that cause unnecessary and serious harm to children both before and after their births [12].

The government and Sentencing Council can and must change sentencing and bail practices. There is no statutory duty for judges to take pregnancy or parenthood into consideration when sentencing or making a decision on bail, and there are no specific medical or psychologically-informed sentencing guidelines to assist sentencers when for sentencing pregnant women and new mothers, despite the vast amount of research and evidence available to inform such guidelines.

Women form just 4% of the prison population in England and Wales and a minority of that 4% are pregnant at the point of their sentencing. Three in five women enter prison for six months or less. According to a study published earlier this year, the most common offence among pregnant women in prison was shoplifting [13]. Eleven countries (including Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy and Portugal) have laws against the imprisonment of pregnant women, with alternatives in place [13]. We would suggest there is a strong argument for all women to be kept in the community, not in prison, and the case for using only non-custodial sentences for pregnant women and new mothers is evidence-based and inarguable.

The alternative

All evidence suggests that, instead of custodial sentences, women swept up in the criminal justice system should receive support in the community at properly resourced women’s centres that can help tackle the proven driving causes of crime: domestic abuse, poverty, addiction and homelessness. Given these drivers, rehabilitation should be the focus of sentencing. Women’s centres are community-based services that tailor support around women’s specific needs to address the root causes of complex problems that women with multiple disadvantages face. The Prison Reform Trust found that 57% of women in prison reported being a victim of domestic violence [14]. A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation has found that community women’s centres, which help women to build the capacity to address their issues, rather than just addressing offending behaviour, are a far more cost-effective response than custody and are proven to reduce reoffending [15].

You have the opportunity to stop the senseless and needless harm, including loss of life, being caused by imprisoning pregnant women and new mothers. Please act without further delay:

1. Enter dialogue with us to work towards a sentencing guideline that specifically informs judges on the risks and factors to be taken into account when considering sentence for a pregnant woman or mother of an infant;

2. Address ministers and MPs on the need for a statutory duty, in light of the research above, to consider the pregnancy or new motherhood of a woman when making decisions on bail and/or sentence.

Yours sincerely,
Aisha Dodwell, Mel Evans, Emma Hughes, Diana Adell and Jung-ui Sul, No Births Behind Bars

Janey Starling and Seyi Falodun-Liburd, Co-directors, Level Up

Gill Walton CBE, Chief Executive, Royal College of Midwives

Birte Harlev-Lam OBE, Executive Director Midwife, Royal College of Midwives

Dr Eddie Morris, President, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Dr Helen Mactier, President, British Association of Perinatal Medicine

Rt Reverend Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and Anglican Bishop for Prisons, Church of England

Naomi Delap, Director, Birth Companions

Ros Bragg, Director, Maternity Action

Francesca Treadaway, Director, Birth Rights

Sonya Ruparel, Chief Executive, Women in Prison

Keith Reed, CEO, Parent-Infant Foundation

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive, Bliss

Clea Harmer, Chief Executive, Sands

Kath Abrahams, Chief Executive, Tommy’s

Jenny Ward, Chief Executive, The Lullaby Trust

Ruth Bender Atik, National Director, The Miscarriage Association

Elizabeth Duff, Senior Policy Adviser, National Childbirth Trust

Estelle du Boulay, Director, Rights of Women

Martha Spurrier, Director, Liberty

James Skinner, Co-director, MedAct

Deborah Coles, Executive Director, INQUEST

Lubia Begum-Rob, Director, Prisoners’ Advice Service

Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive, PACT

Harriet Wistrich, Director, Centre for Women’s Justice

Jodie Beck and Millie Smith, Co-founders, Our Empty Chair

Brianna Smith, Director of Operations, Children of Prisoners Europe

Claire Hubberstey, Chief Executive, One Small Thing

Natasha Finlayson, Chief Executive, Working Chance

Jayne Butler, CEO, Rape Crisis England and Wales

Tom Harrison, Retired Solicitor and Deputy District Judge (civil), Philosophy in Prison

Dr Shona Minson, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

Dr Laura Abbott, Associate Professor in Midwifery, University of Hertfordshire, Fellow of The Royal College of Midwives

Dr Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at De Montfort University Dr Maria Garcia de Frutos, Lecturer in Midwifery, City University of London

Professor Nicola Padfield, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, Director, Cambridge Centre for Criminal Justice

Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe, Director, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge

Dr Rona Epstein, Honorary Research Fellow, Coventry Law School, University of Coventry

Dr Felicity Gerry KC, Libertas Chambers

His Honour Nicholas Cooke KC, Former Senior Circuit and Deputy High Court Judge, Oxford University

Marcia Willis Stewart KC (Hon), Coram Chambers Maya Sikand KC, Doughty St Chambers

Jane Ryan, Partner, Bhatt Murphy

Maya Grantham, Solicitor, Leigh Day

Harriet Johnson, Barrister, Doughty St Chambers

Pippa Woodrow, Barrister, Doughty St Chambers

Omran Belhadi, Barrister, Doughty St Chambers

Zoë Chapman, Barrister, Red Lion Chambers

Tim Kiely, Barrister, Red Lion Chambers

Michelle Nelson, Barrister, Red Lion Chambers

Jesse Nicholls, Barrister, Matrix Chambers

Lily Lewis, Barrister, Garden Court North

Mandu Reid, Leader, Women’s Equality Party

Tabitha Morton, Deputy Leader, Women’s Equality Party

Miranda Reilley, Director, AVID

Maria Gallagher, Director, Feminist Law Society

Dr Sarah Keenan, Reader in Law, Birkbeck School of Law

Dr Nadine El-Enany, Reader in Law, Birkbeck School of Law

Dr Cheyann Heap, Research Associate, University of York

Kim Jackson-Blott, Clinical Psychologist, Children’s services

Leanne Turner, Founder/CEO, Aching Arms

Jane Fisher, Director, Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC)

Marcus Green, CEO, Action on Pre-eclampsia

Heidi Eldridge, CEO, MAMA Academy

Karen Burgess, CEO and Founder, Petals Charity

Sarah Fishburn, Chair, Pelvic Partnership

Sarah de Malplaquet, Chief Executive, Kit Tarka Foundation

Jane Denton, Director, Multiple Births Foundation

Munira Oza, Director, The Ectopic Pregnancy Trust

Peter Grigg, Chief Executive, Home-Start UK

Indy Cross, CEO, Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk

Shauna Leven, CEO, Twins Trust

Leah Francis, Trainee Clinical Psychologist, NHS

Zita Holbourne , National Chair, BARAC UK

Dr Sanah Ahsan, Clinical psychologist, NHS

Alyce Biddle, Community Organiser, Sheffield Maternity Cooperative

Kevin Blowe, Campaigns Coordinator, Netpol

Professor Paul O’Hare, Consultant Physician, University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire

Dr Sara Lightowlers, Clinical Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

Jo Watson, Psychotherapist, AD4E

Sage M Stephanou, Managing Director, Radical Therapist Network CIC

Norman L. Reimer, Global CEO, Fair Trials

Sophie Ellis, PhD Researcher, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge

Paul-John Griffiths, Forensic Psychologist, PJG Psychological Services

Dr Nick Waggett, Chief Executive Officer, Association of Child Psychotherapists

Dr Siobhan Tierney, Principal Clinical Psychologist , NHS

Dr. Nick Bell, Clinical Psychologist, Psychologists for Social Change

Vik Nair, Clinical Psychologist, GG&C NHS Health Board

Tarek Younis, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University

Dr Claire Fitzpatrick, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Lancaster University

Dr Natalie Booth, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Bath Spa University

Dr Katie Hunter, Research Fellow, Lancaster University

Clementine Harrison, Former Criminal Solicitor (Currently a stay at home mother)

Dr Matthew Constantinou, Trainee Clinical Psychologist, NHS

Clare Hennessey, Solicitor

Sharon Shalev, Criminologist, University of Oxford

Catherine Austin, Service Manager, Peabody

Elspeth Windsor, DPhil Candidate and Research Assistant, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford

Naida Osei, PhD student, University of Oxford

Dr Steph Scott, Lecturer in Public Health, Newcastle University


[1] Maya Grantham and Ellie Sutherland, Leigh Day, ‘Is it time to stop holding pregnant women in prison?’
[2] Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, ‘Independent investigation into the death of Baby A at HMP Bronzefield on 27 September 2019’
[3] HMPPS Annual Digest 2021/22
[4] Observer, ‘Jailed women in UK five times more likely to suffer stillbirths data shows’ (2021)
[5] Nuffield Trust, ‘Inequality on the inside: Using hospital data to understand the key health care issues for women in prison’ (2022)
[6] Nuffield Trust, ‘Prisoners use of hospital services’ (2020)
[7] Dr Laura Abbott, ‘Pregnancy and Childbirth in English Prisons: Institutional Ignominy and the Pains of Imprisonment’ (2020)
[8] Parent-Infant Foundation, Securing Healthy Lives (2021)
[9] Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, ‘Independent investigation into the death of Baby A at HMP Bronzefield on 27 September 2019’ (2021)
[10] United Nations, Bangkok rules on women offenders and prisoners (2013)
[11] Shona Minson, ‘Who cares? Analysing the place of children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales’ (2017)
[12] Dr Rona Epstein, ‘MOTHERS IN PRISON: the sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child’ (2012)
[13] Rona Epstein, ‘Why are pregnant women in prison?’ (2022)
[14] Prison Reform Trust, ‘There’s a reason we’re in trouble’: Domestic abuse as a driver to women’s offending (2017)
[15] HMP Probation, Research, The evidence base (women)