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.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Thank you!

Well, we hoped to make history by getting the first Green Councillors elected. For 16 months, we pounded the streets of Stroud Green, come rain or shine – or snow! – and met an amazing array of residents, many who had interesting stories to tell.

From hearing about squirrels rights (yes, really) to seeing Dusty Springfield’s cowboy boots - ! – and from learning about the history of the area to learning of the terrible conditions many of the residents of this supposedly affluent area live in, we became part of the community, and did our best to help residents, albeit in an unelected capacity.

So many members and non-members helped out, whether it was through fundraising, or slogging around delivering leaflets, or knocking on thousands of doors. Some of them raised our media profile, helped us with our election material, and yet more stepped forward to participate as ‘paper candidates’ in neighbouring wards, meaning we could stand a ‘full slate’ in Haringey.

All of this led up to last Thursday, where, in Stroud Green, we ran a full election day operation. When I went out to ‘knock-up’ voters, I was told, again and again, “We’ve already voted for you!” “Good luck!” It was both humbling and a great boost.

Then at the count we had to endure a Tory surge nationally (always thoroughly depressing) and the realisation that we had not taken Stroud Green, despite our hardest of efforts.

The result was as follows:

Name of Candidate Party Votes

BRAGGA Anna Leigh Green Party 1,209

BUTCHER Ed Liberal Democrats 2,889

COPE Sarah Elizabeth Green Party 1,234

COWAN Dorothy Eugenie The Conservative Party Candidate 436

CURTIS Kay The Conservative Party Candidate 423

FORBES Jayne Elizabeth Green Party 1171

KEEVER John The Labour Party Candidate 1591

NORTON Roy The Conservative Party Candidate 451

PATEL Jayanti The Labour Party Candidate 1,522

REECE Katherine Mary Liberal Democrats 2,551

ROBERTSON Jo-Ann The Labour Party Candidate 1,562

WILSON Richard James Liberal Democrats 2,427

So the average vote for a Green candidate in Stroud Green was 1204. In 2006, at the last local elections, the average vote for a Green candidate in Stroud Green was 516. In other words, although we did not win, all of our efforts meant that we more than doubled the Green vote. Not enough for Green Councillors to be elected in Haringey, but surely a step in the right direction.

I've had emails and 'phone calls from Stroud Green residents since the result came through - one wrote 'I'm sorry that you did not get elected on Thursday in my ward. You certainly worked hard and I think would have been a good councillor for us.' Thank you - and thanks to all of you who voted for us.

We of course had some wonderful news to boost us: we have our first MP. I’m informed that the Green Party website is currently crashing because there are so many people joining the party today. Indeed, we’ve attracted new activists and members through our campaign in Stroud Green – just this week, when canvassing, I picked up a new, enthusiastic member on Oakfield Road!

Now we need to let the dust settle before analysing things and planning our next steps, and in the meantime I hope we can have a great party, to thank all of the activists who have given themselves so generously over the last year and a bit.

I want end by saying a special thanks to Chris, my husband. Not only did he look after our daughter every night and weekend whilst I was out campaigning, he more often than not put in hours of work every night, organising leaflets, posterboards, logging data, sorting out the website...the list goes on.

Thank you all – and onwards!