Many people will have been horrified by accounts of women giving birth in British prisons in their cells with no skilled attendants. Last week The Guardian carried two accounts from research into the conditions of pregnant prisoners undertaken by Dr Laura Abbott, specialist midwife and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. The report flags up significant risks to the safety and wellbeing of the women and babies and is based on three unnamed prisons all in England.
In the Birth Practice and Politics Forum, we were reminded of an action in 1996 when one of us, Beverley Beech, filmed a woman labouring in shackles in a British hospital. Annette, who was in Holloway prison for stealing a handbag, had appealed to Beverley to be her birth partner, so with Annette’s permission and the help of Channel 4, Beverley took a concealed camera into hospital and filmed part of her labour in shackles, which was then broadcast causing public outrage, discussion in Parliament, and a change in practice. It also led to the setting up of Birth Companions, which has continued to monitor the plight of some of the most marginalised women in Britain, and helped to provide excellent midwifery care from midwives from the Whittington hospital for women in Holloway as well as making changes across the prison system. (Note to younger readers: Beverley’s filming was before the age of mobile phones or YouTube, so was both surprising and effective).
We obviously need to carry on being vigilant. Most women in prison are still a vulnerable and small minority, (fewer than 5%) in a system designed for men. More of them have experienced physical emotional or sexual abuse, (57% as opposed to 37% of men) and 31% have spent time in care; most have drug or alcohol related problems and as a group, worse mental health. Statistics are not collected for pregnant women but it is estimated that 600 receive antenatal care and 100 give birth every year in prison. So despite the good work being done to bring the plight of extremely vulnerable women and their babies to our attention, years of reduced resources in public services have taken their toll. Beverley’s action showed that a few determined individuals can and do contribute to important changes.