“I can’t find the words to describe what it’s like to be locked behind a solid steel door.”
Katie* was once pregnant behind bars and endured an ordeal that left her “completely terrified” and fearing for her baby’s health.
She opens up about her experiences as the investigation into Aisha Cleary’s death comes to a close.
The baby died after being born in his mother’s cell at HMP Bronzefield in 2019.
Her 18-year-old mother was left “alone” and her cries for help went unanswered as labor began.
In the morning, blood-stained walls greeted the prison guards, who sounded the alarm, but it was too late for baby Aisha.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman noted that the incident “should never have happened”, while others claimed Aisha’s mother was “badly let down” by multiple authorities.
The case brought back traumatic memories for Katie, who spent three months in prison for violent crimes.
She told Metro.co.uk: “I was seven weeks pregnant when I came in. I had no idea I was going to be jailed, I was told flat out I wouldn’t.”
“So I was very scared when I was taken from the court to the cells and then to prison. I had no idea what to expect, no bag, no clothes. It was really scary when I thought, “I’m going to lose this baby because of stress.”
Katie felt “completely unappreciated” and didn’t even know what she was entitled to as a pregnant woman in prison – like extra mattresses and extra food packages.
She added: “There was a pregnant woman on the wing who was with her and said, ‘Do you know the birth attendant is coming in on a Tuesday?’ One day I went with them and they were with what they told me, literally a life saver. I don’t think I would have survived without her.’
Birth Companion’s overall goal is to persuade the government to end the use of prisons for pregnant women and mothers of infants.
The charity began working at Holloway Prison in north London in 1996 and today supports women in prisons across England.
Naomi Delap, director of Birth Companions, said the group had been “concerned” that a case like Aisha’s could arise if changes weren’t made.
She told Metro.co.uk: “We knew the risks that pregnant women, mothers and babies face every day.” When we heard what had happened [to Aisha] It was really shocking but unfortunately not surprising as we had long feared it was going to happen.
“The nature of the prison system itself means it will be inherently unsafe, which is why our campaign is now about preventing incarceration in the first place.”
In many countries, pregnant women never go to prison.
In countries like Brazil, Ukraine and Mexico, courts prioritize community punishment, house arrest and probationary supervision as punishments.
This is not the case in England, as Katie and others have noted.
She described the treatment of Aisha and her mother as “disgraceful”.
Katie said: “When I heard the news I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach and chest.” Words fail me to describe what it’s like to be locked behind a solid steel door.
READ MORE: ‘No Births Behind Bars’: Protesters demand an end to jailing of pregnant women
“This poor girl in the pain of labor giving birth alone is just the most inhuman thing imaginable.” The fact that she was stuck behind that door, couldn’t get out and no one came to her , is a shame. She was only 18 and left all alone.”
Katie, who struggles with PTSD as a result of her own prison experience, hopes to use her voice to make a difference.
She added: “Through Birth Companions, I understand that I’m not a bad person and that I can make a difference for other women.” Hopefully this can impact sentencing guidelines.”
Katie’s daughter, who she gave birth to after her release from prison, is unaware of her mother’s journey behind bars.
The family is waiting until she’s older to break the news.
Katie was still behind bars when her first inquest was due to take place.
She was told the date and place and diligently informed her partner – unaware that this was not allowed.
When she reached the hospital, his arrival caused a great commotion as she was taken away before her blood could be drawn.
Katie added: “I was marched out surrounded by security and prison guards.” People in the waiting room pointed fingers at her and said, “That’s her, she’s the prisoner.” That’s it.” It was like I was some kind of ax murderer that was in the news.
“The first scan was going to be one of the most magical moments of my life and it was depraved and awful.”
Katie added: “I want people to realize that prisoners are people.” There’s a lot of stigma that if you’re in prison you have to have done something horrible to be there.
“Many of the women I spoke to in prison did not pose a threat to the public and I felt that they didn’t deserve to be in prison at all.”
There are 12 women’s prisons in the UK and there are currently no publicly available figures on the number of pregnant women who pass through the system each year or the outcome of their pregnancies.
Two babies have been confirmed 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 attendants will work to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.
Naomi said, “When the government ends custody of pregnant women and mothers of young children and prioritizes services that address the root causes of crime, it will break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage and bring tremendous benefits to women, their families and society.”
“It will not be enough to just focus on sentencing.” We must end the use of pre-trial detention, which has escalated in recent years.
“Aisha’s mother was herself in pre-trial detention and was released shortly after the tragic death of her baby. We must also end the criminalization of women, many of whose crimes stem from experiences of trauma, abuse and poverty, as well as unmet needs related to mental illness, domestic violence and substance use.”
A Justice Department spokesman confirmed that measures had been taken to improve the lives of pregnant women behind bars.
He told Metro.co.uk: “Custody is always a last resort for women and independent judges already take mitigating factors such as pregnancy into account when making sentencing decisions.”
“Since 2019, we have already taken decisive steps to improve support for incarcerated pregnant women, including employing specialized mother-child liaison officers in all women’s prisons, conducting additional animal welfare observations, and introducing better screening and social services for pregnant women.” Prisoners receive the care they need.”
*Names have been changed to protect Katie’s daughter’s privacy.
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