Back to blog

LCN Blogs

Should pregnant women be sentenced to prison?

Should pregnant women be sentenced to prison?

Savannah Taylor


Reading time: three minutes

Experts and campaigners are urgently calling for a review of the sentencing of pregnant women as they are concerned about the health risks associated with being pregnant and giving birth while in prison.

An open letter has been written to Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis and the Sentencing Council for England & Wales. The letter has outlined the risks of giving birth in prison, and the adverse effect this has on both mothers and babies. Additionally, it raised concerns regarding the lack of access to basic comfort, inadequate nutrition or fresh air, and the incarcerated mother’s fear of separation from her baby. It included a warning that pregnant women in prison suffer severe stress and highlighted evidence of a higher likelihood of stillbirths and unsafe pregnancies. Data has suggested that women in prison are five times more likely to have a stillbirth and twice as likely to give birth prematurely, suggesting an increased risk of unsafe pregnancy for women in prison.

In 2021/22, there were 50 births in prisons across England & Wales, 47 of which were at a hospital, while three were in transit to a hospital or within the prison. Whilst many births took place in hospital, there have been fatal incidents with a couple of births. In 2019 there was an incident at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey where a teenager’s baby died after she gave birth alone in her cell. The woman had to bite through the umbilical cord and wrap her baby in a towel. By the time medical staff arrived in the morning, her baby had passed away. Another incident occurred in 2020 at HMP Styal in Cheshire where a woman gave birth to a stillborn baby in a toilet without any specialist medical assistance or pain relief.

The ‘No Births Behind Bars’ and ‘Level up’ campaigns are calling for courts to stop sending pregnant women to prison, in order to bring an end to incarcerated childbirth. Currently, there is no statutory duty for judges to take pregnancy into consideration when deciding a sentence. Campaigners are arguing for a change in the law, arguing that judges should legally consider the health of pregnant women and their babies during sentencing. Kath Abraham, chief executive of pregnancy charity Tommy’s, has stated: “Tommy’s believes everyone should have equitable access to good maternity care, no matter who they are or where they are based. The shocking statistics on pregnant women in prison and their babies show prison is not a safe place to be pregnant.”

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has responded by stating that there are now specialist mother and baby liaison officers in every woman’s prison, additional welfare observations, and better screening and social services support for pregnant prisoners. The MOJ has also stated they are investing £3.6 million will be allocated to help local services, such as mental health support and drug experts. However, campaigners believe that this is just a ‘copy-and-paste’ claim, with few improvements visibly being made.

Despite campaigners seeking greater consideration for pregnant offenders, it is not as simple as demanding that a prison sentence should not be imposed on a pregnant woman. Pregnant offenders should be given adequate and correct pregnancy support while in prison, but the courts and criminal justice system can’t overlook their crime because they are pregnant. This would portray a negative message to the public regarding criminal action. However, a focus on providing better support and safer conditions for pregnant offenders undoubtedly needs to be made in the future.

As poverty typically plays a huge role in why women end up in the criminal justice system, there need to be greater support and funding in the least affluent areas, especially in a cost-of-living crisis where prices are set to soar and living conditions are set to worsen. Action must be taken in order to prevent incarceration rates at the root cause.