The horrifying truth of giving birth behind bars in the UK

When a video of a pregnant woman forced to give birth alone in a jail cell in Denver surfaced, many were rightly horrified. But I wonder how many thought – thank goodness that can never happen here in the UK? And how many would be wrong.

Kathleen* was 24 weeks pregnant with her second child, when she was sentenced and imprisoned in a UK jail. At 36 weeks she was in her single occupancy cell at 11pm, when she started getting contractions. Anxious because her first birth had been early and her labour fast, she sought help from prison staff.

But, as Dr Laura Abbott, a Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Hertfordshire University, discovered in her research into prison pregnancy conditions, the jail nurse, who wasnt qualified to make that judgement, dismissed Kathleens concerns.

Kathleen says: I said to the nurses, I says, “I think I am actually in labour,” and they were going, “Mm, well, Im not sure. Just lie down and well check and see if your stomachs contracting.” So, I lay down on the bed, and theyre like, “No, your stomach is not contracting, youre not in labour, its Braxton Hicks, youre in for a really, really long night.”



They gave Kathleen a paracetamol, a cup of tea, and returned her to her cell.

At half past midnight Kathleens waters broke. Her baby was in breech position. Kathleen knew that she and her baby were in danger. She rang the bell for help.

She said: I was laid there on my bed, in my cell with a male nurse and a female nurse, not midwifery trained at all, trying to put gas and air in my mouth and Im like, “I dont want anything, I need to feel awake and I need to concentrate.”

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 11 File photo dated 19/11/2018 of a member of prison staff. A probation service's work with offenders remains "unacceptably poor" with concerns raised over failures to check the risks posed to domestic abuse victims and children, inspectors said. PA Photo. Issue date: Wednesday September 11, 2019. The "greatest deficiencies" in the Norfolk and Suffolk Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) lie in its work to manage the risk of harm to others, in cases where the safeguarding of children or domestic abuse is a concern, the chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said. See PA story PRISONS Probation. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

One woman was forced to give birth to a breech baby on the prison floor with no midwife while another was told her baby could not possibly be coming that night – only to give birth an hour later with no medical support (Picture: PA)

At 1.20am Kathleen gave birth to a baby girl foot first, in her prison cell. There was no ambulance. No paramedics. No midwife. No doctor. She describes the prison staff as being in absolute panic.

Dr Abbott collected Kathleens story above, along with case studies of other jailed expectant and new mother for her PHD study, The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons.

Author Angela Clarke witnessed the horrors of being pregnant and in jail when working as a tutor in UK women's prisons

Author Angela Clarke heard accounts of women being pregnant and in jail when working as a tutor in UK womens prisons

She now works alongside the charity Birth Companions to campaign to improve the care pregnant women and new mothers receive in prison, highlighting issues of concern including avoidable prison cell births and a lack of women prisoners access to essential items needed for their nutritional and mental health needs.



My own personal experience of talking with expectant women and new mothers in a number of UK prisons Ive taught in [Angela holds writing workshops in womens prisons] uncover similar heartbreaking tales, including that of a pregnant woman who was too scared to leave her cell after she was physically assaulted by another inmate.

Teaching inside UK jails opened my eyes to the hidden horror of being pregnant in prison in this country, inspiring me to write a crime thriller On My Life (Hodder, 2019), exploring an all too real nightmare scenario.

Dr Laura Abbot

Dr Laura Abbot, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Hertfordshire University, spoke to hundreds of women who had been pregnant or given birth in prison and gave evidence for a report calling for reform around mothers rights in jail

Staff are often unaware and unqualified to deal with pregnant charges. As a prison health worker revealed to Dr Abbott when discussing an inmate who gave birth in a cell, with only herself, a male nurse and an officer present:

She just stood up and took off her leggings and I looked down and shed – is it crowned? – babys head was just there. We kind of knew immediately then that that baby was going to be coming, and there was still no ambulance.

There had been confusion about who to call for support and guidance.

More: UK


There are 64 Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) places across the UK prison system, where new mothers can keep their babies with them for up to 18 months – if the mother . After that, the babies are either taken by a suitable family member on the outside, or turned over to social services.

Decisions on whether any one of the thousand women who are currently believed to be pregnant in the UK prison system will qualify for a MBU place, often take until the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy to be passed. When Kathleen gave birth in her cell, she was still awaiting news on whether she would qualify for a place. Or whether her baby would be taken away. She spoke about her distress:

To sit there not knowing whether to breastfeed orRead More – Source