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Ministers urged to end jailing of pregnant women under amendment to policing bill

The majority of pregnant women and mothers with dependent children would be released on bail after arrest rather than being imprisoned under newly proposed measures.

An amendment to the government’s controversial policing bill, due to be debated in the House of Lords on Tuesday, would create a statutory requirement for judges to consider whether imprisoning women on remand was in the best interests of the child or the pregnancy.

Latest prison population data shows 19 per cent of the female inmates are on remand, rather than serving sentences, compared to 16 per cent of men behind bars.

The Centre for Women’s Justice estimates about 600 pregnant women enter prisons in England each year, and about 100 babies are born while their mother is in jail. Although female inmates are legally allowed to keep their babies for the first 18 months in a secure mother and baby prison unit, the vast majority of children are separated from their mothers once born.

Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of the Women in Prison charity, said: “When a parent goes to prison it affects their whole family, disrupting children’s lives and damaging mental health, with 95 per cent of children forced to leave their home when their mother goes to prison.

“Sentencing guidelines already acknowledge the devastating effects of parental imprisonment, but there is clear evidence that these aren’t being consistently and robustly applied.”

Dr Paradine, who is campaigning alongside the organisations Level Up and Birth Companions to demand pregnant women are no longer imprisoned, argued the new measures added to the policing bill would serve as a “lifeline” to make sure families at the “sharpest end of society” are not “unnecessarily torn apart”.

“The babies are not prisoners.”

Former prisoner

An additional amendment to the legislation would also make it a statutory responsibility for judges to bear in mind and clearly stipulate how the interests of a child have been taken into account when sentencing a defendant who is a primary carer with a dependant child.

Judges would also consider the seriousness of the offence when making such decisions and discern whether the defendant is a risk to the public.

Lily*, who lives in London, told The Independent she was forced to sleep in grim conditions while imprisoned for six months on remand and denied bail twice while pregnant.

The 30-year-old, who was separated from her other child while imprisoned, was later found not guilty and released.

She said: “When I first got there I was on a normal wing. I was pregnant in a double room on a top bunk. One of the ladies found out I was pregnant. She said: ‘It’s not safe for you to be up there’.”

Lily, who was then moved to a wing for vulnerable prisoners, said shortages of prison officers led to the health of pregnant women on her wing being placed at risk.

She added: “Before they can decide whether they are going to take you to hospital they have to find people to cover the wing. A woman could be in danger.

“I was having cramps and started bleeding when I went to the hospital. I was with two prison officers from the neighbouring wings. They were not very supportive.”

Lily said her partner was blocked from visiting her at the hospital despite the situation being a medical emergency – with prison officers saying this was due to it being a “security risk”. She explained she was also barred from ringing her partner or a family member.

She said she struggled as her bump got bigger and her appetite increased – adding her portions were not altered despite her pregnancy and sometimes her “potatoes came cooked with dirt on them”. She was forced to choose between using her money to ring her son at home or buy snacks, she said.

Lily explained her single bed got more uncomfortable as her bump got bigger as she warned she “could feel metal planks lying underneath my body”.

She added: “When it was really cold, the thin blankets you get at the hospital are what you had covering you. To obtain a duvet you had to be an enhanced prisoner. I kept applying for this but they just kept declining it.

“They said they didn’t have to tell me why. I thought warmth was a human right, not something you had to earn.

“Prison is not good for the health of the baby. They cannot meet your health or social needs. The babies are not prisoners. You hear horror stories of prison officers assisting live births when they are not medically trained.”

While the Prison Service refuses to release comprehensive statistics on miscarriages, stillbirths and baby deaths, there were deaths of two babies born in UK prisons in the last two years.

Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester who introduced the amendments to the policing bill in the Lords, said prison is “not the right place” for pregnant women or primary carers.

Bishop Treweek, whose amendment is supported by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Lord Dubs and Baroness Massey of Darwen, added: “How do we turn the tables and talk about the human rights of the child.

“The day she was arrested, she was vomiting and bleeding, the shock of that affected the pregnancy.”


“Too often we have policies and legislation led by Daily Mail headlines. Someone thinks lock people up for longer and you have a safer society. If we are affecting long-term development and outcome for the child, it makes no sense.”

Frontline service providers have previously warned that women in prison are often the victims of more serious offences than those for which they have been convicted.

A previous report by the Prison Reform Trust found that 80 per cent of women in jail were there for non-violent offences, while Ministry of Justice data shows almost half of all female prisoners in England and Wales say they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else.

Rabah Kherbane, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said he represented a 23-year-old pregnant mother who had a miscarriage while held on remand until March last year.

He explained the young woman was arrested for an offence where the evidence was really poor – adding that she was twice denied bail despite being pregnant.

Mr Kherbane added: “She was pregnant. She was bleeding daily. She has no previous convictions. I was then instructed on the case and applied for bail. She was released. She had been in custody for about six months.”

He said the prosecution then dropped their “really weak” case against her in September – saying they had no evidence. Mr Kherbane argued the process of being imprisoned while pregnant caused her miscarriage.

“It traumatised her. She has suffered. We have seen her medical records. It was the stress of proceedings, the trauma of being taken to prison,” he added.

“The day she was arrested, she was vomiting and bleeding, the shock of that affected the pregnancy.”

He argued there should be specific provisions in statute to assist judges to make decisions in cases that involve allegations against a pregnant woman or a woman with a dependent child.

“The way the bail act is currently structured does not leave enough room for the interests of the child or the primary carer to be considered when bail decisions are made,” Mr Kherbane said. “That is a real problem.”

A representative of the Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.

*Name changed to protect identity

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