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Women are giving birth in prison cells ‘without access to a midwife’

Women inmates at prisons in England are giving birth in their cells without access to proper medical care, it was claimed today.

Prison nursing staff are allegedly often not trained for emergency deliveries, with one pregnant women in labour told to have ‘some paracetamol and a cup of tea’.

It has also been claimed women who think they are in labour do not have direct access, even by phone, to a midwife – although they can press an emergency bell.

Prison nursing staff are allegedly often not trained for emergency baby deliveries (file picture)

The concerns emerged in a report by specialist midwife Laura Abbott, a University of Hertfordshire lecturer who researched the conditions of pregnant prisoners.

She spoke to an inmate who had been in premature labour with four weeks of the pregnancy still to go, with the baby in the breech position, reported the Guardian. 

The prisoner had lost her mucous plug, which happened in her first pregnancy just before a quick labour began, and insisted that she had to go straight to hospital.

She told Dr Abbott: ‘I was trying to explain this to health care, they were just like, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ and I was like, ‘No, really, I know my own body’.’

ANALYSIS: ‘Prisons are failing to minimise and manage these risks’

By NAOMI DELAP, director of the charity Birth Companions, which supports women in prisons

Dr Abbott’s work shines a vital and long overdue spotlight on the risks mothers and babies currently face within the prison system.

It appears, based on this research and our own conversations, that births may be happening in cells or during transfer to hospital in greater numbers than the prisons service or government are aware of, often as a result of slow staff responses, unqualified assessments or incorrect advice.

Such situations are not only dangerous for mothers and babies, but are also highly stressful for prison staff. Any pregnancy and birth carries risks, and complications can happen for many reasons. 

We don’t want to blame prisons for incidents beyond their control, but there seems to be a good deal of evidence suggesting that prisons are failing to minimise and manage these risks, not only in terms of physical safety, but women’s mental health too.

It’s vital that these issues, and others affecting pregnant women and new mothers in prison, are fully addressed in the new framework for women offenders due to be published by the Ministry of Justice before the end of the year. 

Without urgent changes, the lives of babies and mothers will continue to be put at risk in the prison system.

She then started to have contractions– and told nurses: ‘I am in labour’. But one allegedly replied: ‘No, you’re not. Here’s some paracetamol and a cup of tea.’

The woman claimed her waters broke ten minutes after the nurses left, who were then in ‘absolute panic’ as she gave birth to the baby feet first in her cell.

She said: ‘I had nothing for her, no clothes, no nappies, because I was still in the main jail and I wasn’t allowed any baby stuff in. It was September – freezing – so I had to just wrap her up in clothes, completely naked underneath my nightie. She had nothing.’ 

There are no national figures on how many births in cells occur, although they are known to be very rare – and data on pregnant inmates is held by each prison.

A Prison Service spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Healthcare in prisons is provided by trained medics and nurses, but we have also made training on dealing with pregnant inmates available to all prison officers.

‘Each pregnant prisoner has an individual care plan, while new guidance will make clear they should have access to 24-hour midwifery advice.

‘We know it is extremely rare for a woman to give birth in prison – because every step is taken to get them to hospital – but those unique cases are invariably down to the unpredictability of labour.

‘Our new female offender strategy made clear that we want fewer women serving short sentences in custody and more remaining in the community, making use of women’s centres to address needs such as substance misuse and mental health problems.’

NHS England, which is responsible for the provision of healthcare in the female prison estate, declined to comment today.