Birth Companions’ press statement:
Charity calls for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women as inquest opens into HMP Bronzefield baby death
2 May 2023
Birth Companions – the UK’s leading voice on pregnancy and motherhood in prison – is repeating its demand for government to end the use of prison for pregnant women and mothers of infants. The call comes as a month-long inquest into the tragic death of Aisha Cleary, born in her mother’s cell in HMP Bronzefield in 2019, opens in Surrey coroner’s court.
The death of Aisha, whose 18-year old mother’s calls for help went ignored by the prison when she went into labour, has already been the subject of an extensive investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The damning report resulting from that investigation led Sue McAllister (the Ombudsman at the time) to state that “all pregnancies in prison should be treated as high risk by the virtue of the fact that the woman is behind a locked door for a significant amount of time.” The NHS went on to categorise pregnancies in prison as high risk.
Commenting on the start of the inquest, Naomi Delap, Director of Birth Companions, said:
“We will hear some deeply distressing witness testimony in the course of this inquest, which will add to the already considerable weight of evidence showing that prisons are, and will never be, safe environments for pregnant women. The system, by its very nature, creates significant barriers to healthcare. We’ve been working with pregnant women in prison for 27 years, in which time we’ve seen and heard of other tragic deaths as well as many serious incidents and near misses. Things have to change.
“It’s not enough to promise improvements in care that we all know will be impossible to embed in such a broken system. The government can, and must, end the imprisonment of pregnant women and mothers of infants. This is far from a radical position. In the vast majority of cases the imprisonment of pregnant and postnatal women is unnecessary and avoidable. It is a choice made by the legal system in this country.”
At least eleven other countries, including Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and Mexico, do not permit or severely curtail the incarceration of pregnant women. Instead, these countries prioritise use of community sentences, probation supervision, house arrest or electronic monitoring. Italy also prohibits pre-trial detention (remand) unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Yet in England there is one reference to pregnancy and primary caring responsibilities, in the mitigating factors within sentencing guidelines. There is no requirement for a woman’s pregnancy or primary caring role to be assessed (through pre-sentence reports) or for sentencers to take this into account.
“It will not be enough to focus on sentencing alone. We need to end the use of remand, which has spiralled in recent years. Aisha’s mother was herself held on remand, and released from custody soon after the tragic death of her baby. We also need to end the criminalisation of women whose offending is largely driven by experiences of trauma, abuse and poverty, and unmet needs associated with mental ill-health, domestic abuse and the use of substances.”
More than half (52%) of women remanded and tried by the magistrate courts in 2021 did not go on to receive a custodial sentence .
“If the government ends the use of custody for pregnant women and mothers of infants, and prioritises services that address the root causes of offending, it will break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and deliver huge benefits for women, their families and society.”
The inquest is scheduled to run until 2 June 2023.
Notes to editors:
There are 12 women’s prisons in the UK. There are no publicly available figures on the number of pregnant women passing through the prison system each year, or on the outcomes of their pregnancies.
Two babies are known to have died in women’s prisons in the past two years: one at Bronzefield in October 2019, and one at Styal prison in June 2020.
Birth Companions is a national charity specialising in the needs and experiences of pregnant women and new mothers facing disadvantage and inequality.
Read Birth Companions’ manifesto for the next government at: https://www.birthcompanions.org.uk/pages/our-campaigns
For further comment or to discuss anything in this press statement further, please contact Kirsty Kitchen: [email protected]
 Prison Reform Trust (2022) Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Why-women-2022-briefing.pdf