Breastfeeding mothers protest for an end to prison for pregnant women

Protesters sit outside the Justice Department today holding a yellow and green banner that reads'No Births Behind Bars'.

Protesters said the prison was an unsafe environment for pregnant women and their unborn babies (Image: We Level Up)

More than 50 mothers and babies held a “feed” outside the Justice Department building today, calling for an end to the incarceration of pregnant women.

The group said both new and pregnant mothers should not be put in a prison cell as it is dangerous for them and their babies.

Two babies are known to have died in women’s prisons in the past three years as their mothers were born in HMP Bronzefield in October 2019 and HMP Styal in June 2020 without medical assistance in prison.

Those protesting today were allowed to feed themselves on “spoons, breasts and bottles,” with women sitting on the ground and their babies bouncing.

One of the babies ate part of the letter meant for Dominic Raab, but it was still legible.

The protesters say prison is not a suitable environment for a pregnant woman, noting that the prison ombudsman has said that all pregnancies inside prison are “high risk”.

Despite this, the number of babies born to prisoners is actually increasing.

A baby sits next to the slogan'No births behind bars' at the protest

One of the young protesters gets a head start as an activist (Image: We Level Up)

Most women in prison serve short sentences for nonviolent crimes, and many are drawn into crime because of their experiences of poverty, trauma and abuse. 72% of women in prison are serving sentences of 12 months or less, while 46% of the women who go to prison each year have not yet been convicted and are in custody awaiting trial.

The protesters handed Justice Minister Dominic Raab a petition with 10,831 signatures.

Although the minister did not attend the protest, Labor MP for Poplar and Limehouse Apsana Begum showed her support.

This is the second campaign stunt by No Births Behind Bars, who previously organized the largest baby protest in UK history for the same cause.

Activists say the only way to protect pregnant women and new mothers is to keep them in their communities, where they can access the support they need.

Eleven countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have laws prohibiting sending pregnant women to prison.

There are 12 women’s prisons in the UK.

Research by the Nuffield Trust found that just over one in ten women who gave birth while in prison did so before they reached the hospital – in prison or while being transferred to the hospital.

Analysis of hospital records has also shown that the number of babies born to women while serving prison sentences has increased year-on-year, reaching 67 in 2018-19 compared to 43 in 2013-14.

Janey Starling, Level Up co-director, said: “Prison will never be a safe place to conceive and it is unspeakably cruel to subject pregnant women, mothers and babies to the ordeal of prison needlessly when there are other alternatives are.

“It’s time for the government to end the incarceration of pregnant women and new mothers and ensure they are supported in the community instead.”

Mel Evans, of campaign group No Births Behind Bars, said: “As mothers, we know how important a baby’s first few months are. Other countries have laws that prevent pregnant women and young mothers from going to jail and that’s what we want to see in the UK. This is an urgent matter as at least two babies have died in prison in recent years.’

dr Laura Abbott, Lecturer in Midwifery at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “From a midwife’s perspective, prison is an unsafe environment for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

“In-cell births are not uncommon, and women give birth in the prison complex, without skilled midwifery assistance and in unsterile, unsuitable environments, far more often than they should be. This is extremely worrying and needs to be addressed urgently so that women and babies can be protected.’

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Justin Scacco

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