Friday, 28 May 2010

Birth Behind Bars

Birth Companions is an organisation which provides support for pregnant prisoners, including before they give birth, during labour and in the post-natal period. They currently only work with the women in Holloway Prison (pictured), although through their work they are able to assess what the conditions are for pregnant prisoners and those with babies. Crucially, they are best placed to suggest what needs to change.

First of all, there isn’t a ‘prison service order’ concerning pregnant women. This means that the treatment they receive is patchy, as there is no policy or guidelines about these particular prisoners.

Whereas the birth of their baby can offer a fresh, positive start to some women prisoners, for others it can be difficult, and this isn’t helped by some aspects of our current criminal justice system.

17,000 children are deprived of their mothers annual when they are sent to jail.
Between 2005 and 2008, 283 babies were born in UK prisons. There are just 8 mother and baby units in UK prisons – one is in Holloway Prison.

12,000 women pass through the prison system every year. One third have a young child. (2010). 68% are in for non-violent offences, 56% have used drugs daily. Indeed, many women have said that being in prison has meant they have been able to access detox programmes that they couldn’t access in the outside world.

A quarter of female prisoners have been in care as children, half have been beaten by their partners, and 70% have been diagnosed with two or more mental disorders. A lack of mental health beds mean that many women who are in prison should really be in a mental hospital. Indeed, according to the Corston Report, women prisoners are the most likely to self-harm – the problem is very common in our prisons. Suicide attempts are also common, and in 2004 it was reported that 6 women a night had to be cut down from nooses in Holloway Prison.

Not the sort of environment that any woman would choose to spend her pregnancy or the early months with her baby, then. The work of Birth Companions, together with other groups such as Babies in Prison, who provide volunteers to take babies out for walks, is invaluable in giving the babies the best start in life, and the mothers the support they need.

There is little consideration given to pregnant women in terms of concessions because of their condition. Some pregnant women feel fine, but others suffer from various symptoms, including sickness, back pain and debilitating Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD). Only with a doctor’s letter are they exempted from work. One good thing is that they no longer have to travel to court in so-called ‘sweat boxes’ – instead, they are transferred by car.

Imagine, though, giving birth with only a prison guard for company – possibly male – who may not consent to going out of the room during, for example, an internal examination. This has been known to happen. Imagine being shackled during labour – this too is on record as having occurred.

If the baby is ill and kept in the Special Care Baby unit, the mother may be sent back to prison whilst the baby remains in hospital. If there aren’t enough officers, a woman may not be taken to visit the baby as often as would be appropriate.

Imagine too being sent to prison when you have a very young baby, and having to wait 3 to 4 weeks before the baby can join you, as is the current arrangement. Birth Companions helps women to continue to produce breast milk by expressing, should they be breastfeeding and wishing to carry on. However, if social workers were asked to produce the necessary documentation before the court date came, this traumatic separation of mother and baby wouldn’t be necessary at all.

Most women’s prisons only allow babies to remain with their mothers inside prison for 9 months – after this, they are sent to family or to foster parents. This is a real problem for foreign national women, with no family in the country. I cannot begin to imagine how traumatic this separation must be, both for mothers and babies. Indeed, mothers have reported that even after being separated from them for a weekend, babies have been acting differently.

Prisoners are expected to work during their incarceration, and in many ways this is to be applauded. But I was shocked to hear that 6 weeks after giving birth, the women’s £5 per week maternity pay - ! – is stopped, and they are expected to put the babies in the crèche and work once again. This is hardly conducive to breastfeeding or bonding. Indeed, a woman who had had a caesarean will only just be recovered at this point.

Birth Companions and other groups provide an invaluable service for women and babies. There’s a feeling though that some of their work isn’t seen as the vital, life-enhancing service that it is, and good practise often isn’t shared.

Having a baby can be the chance these women need to turn their lives around, and for the fortunate ones, who receive the right support, it is just that. A lot though still needs to change.

1 comment:

  1. 喔!最悲慘的事並非夭折早逝,而是當我活到七十五歲,卻發現自己從未真正活過。 ..................................................