The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman this week published its official report into the tragic death of a newborn baby at HMP Bronzefield in 2019. The review into such a concerning incident puts a spotlight on an area that has often been overlooked, namely how much is actually known about pregnant women in prisons in England?
In the chart below, we have used routinely collected hospital data (Hospital Episode Statistics) to look at how many women in prison gave birth between 2017/18 and 2019/20, and also crucially where they gave birth.
Births outside of hospital represent a particular risk, as prisons don’t have the trained staff to support women in labour or the facilities to provide medical care for newborn babies.
In 2017/18, 56 prisoners gave birth to a baby, with six of those births taking place outside of hospital. 37 prisoners gave birth in 2018/19, with four of those outside of hospital. In 2019/20, the number of births increased to 48, with just one outside of hospital.
Various organisations, including ourselves, have called for regular reporting on the number of pregnant women in prison, as well as how many give birth. The government committed to this as part of a review of mother and baby units, and data has recently been published for the period from July 2020 to March 2021 – during which time a small number of pregnant women were released from prison under a temporary release scheme during the Covid-19 pandemic. Over this nine-month period, 31 women gave birth, with three of those births happening en route to hospital.
While the number of women in prison has fallen slightly in recent years – from 4,007 in June 2017 to 3,770 in June 2019 – the government’s plans to build 500 new cells for women prisoners could lead to more pregnant women needing support in future.
We already know that women in prison are more likely to miss midwife and obstetric appointments than women in the general population. Pregnant women in prison should be receiving health care that’s equivalent to that received by expectant mothers who are not in prison, and over the next year we will be looking in more detail at the extent to which that objective is being met.