Last week, I hosted a roundtable on pregnancy and early motherhood in prison. I was honoured to welcome to parliament five young women who had all experienced this and bravely told us their stories. Perinatal support for women in prison is something that I have been passionate about ever since I started working with a wonderful charity called Birth Companions last year. It was Birth Companions who approached me about hosting this event, having supported all of the women that came to speak throughout their journey.
Like me, Birth Companions believe that whatever they have done pregnant women and new mothers need medical and emotional support and their innocent children certainly shouldn’t be punished for their mother’s crime. At the event last week, the women spoke of how daunting it was to be sentenced to prison while pregnant, the disappointment of having to attend hospital appointments and scans without their partner and the difficult decisions they faced, choosing between living with their child on a Mother and Baby Unit or leaving them with family or friends on the outside.
All of these women had different experiences from different prisons. There were women who gave birth during their prison term, women who spent much of their pregnancy in custody but were released before the birth of their child and women who were sentenced within the first 18 months of their child’s life. Whatever their circumstances, there were two things that I heard these women mention again and again last week – fear and guilt.
The fear of giving birth alone. The fear that their baby would be taken away from them or that they wouldn’t get a place on a Mother and Baby Unit. The fear that their child’s future would be affected by their unconventional start in life or that they wouldn’t get the same quality of care afforded to other children if they were sick.
And the guilt. That if they took their baby into a Mother and Baby unit, their partner and family would miss out on spending time with the child, but if they left the baby outside they themselves would miss those early bonding opportunities. Guilt that their innocent child would spend their first months in prison and reach crucial milestones in this environment. And guilt for those with older children if they had the baby in prison with them while the older children could only make occasional visits.
These women were not hardened criminals. For many it was a first – and last – offence; an ill-judged mistake or a crime committed out of desperation. All too often women who end up in prison, pregnant or not, are victims themselves and we really need a complete overhaul of our criminal justice system where women are concerned. We need to look at the improvements we can make to promote community sentencing and reduce the number of short, unnecessary prison terms that often leave women homeless, jobless and struggling for the rest of their lives.
I recently asked the government for statistics on the number of pregnant women in prison and the number of babies born in custody each year. I was shocked when their response was that the information is not held centrally. The minister, Edward Argar MP, attended last week’s roundtable and I was pleased to hear from him that this was something the government were looking to address. Having worked with Ed before, I trust that he will be true to his word – and having worked with me before, he will know that I will not rest until he is.