Maternity care must be safer for all – including women in prison

A new report shows that women in prison are 7x more likely to experience a stillbirth than those in the general population. We believe that everyone should have access to good maternity care, which is why we’re supporting a campaign to overhaul sentencing guidelines for pregnant women.

2 years ago an FOI request sent to 11 NHS Trusts serving women’s prisons in England found that women in prison were 5x more likely to have a stillbirth than those outside it. 

This figure has now risen. For the years 2020-2022 stillbirths were at a rate of 27.1 per 1,000 births compared with an average of 4 per 1,000 for the wider population. 

Through a new FOI request, The Observer newspaper also found that in 2020-22, 25% of babies born to women in prison were admitted to a neonatal unit afterwards – almost double the national figure of 14%. 12% of babies had a low birth weight, compared with 6.5% outside of prison. 

As our Chief Executive Kath Abrahams told The Observer, many women in prison come from some of the most deprived backgrounds so are more likely to experience a high-risk pregnancy. 

“Socioeconomic factors like smoking, poor mental health, domestic violence, diet, obesity and substance misuse will increase the risk of stillbirth,” Kath said.  

“But we know that, with the right care, many of these women can be supported to have healthier pregnancies with better outcomes for mothers and babies.” 

“We cannot simply write these families off. These women and their babies are amongst the most vulnerable in society and need specific, personalised care during pregnancy to reduce the unacceptable rates of stillbirth and neonatal harm occurring within the prison system.” 

Along with our colleagues at the Royal College of Midwives, we’re supporting campaign group Level Up in calling for an end to the practice of sentencing pregnant women to custody. As Level-Up’s co-director Janey Starling says, “when supported in their communities, [women] can give their baby the best start in life.” 

Lasted year we signed an open letter to the Sentencing Council - the body which produces guidelines on sentencing for judges - calling for a review of practices for pregnant women. We understand that the Council is now due to review whether there is a need for new guidance. 

Kath Abrahams says: “The enormous impact of losing your child through miscarriage or stillbirth, and the health complications many children face if they are born prematurely, can be a ‘life sentence’.   

"Tommy’s believes everyone should have equitable access to good maternity care, no matter who they are or where they live. We’re working to make maternity care safer for all, and that must include women in prison. They can’t be ignored simply because they’re out of sight.  

“Sadly, we have seen the UK’s stillbirth rate rise over the past 2 years, and we know that in the general population parents living in deprived areas are twice as likely to have a stillborn baby than those in the least deprived. For some of the most vulnerable - women in prison - the statistics are even more shocking. It’s clear from the evidence that prison is not a safe place to be pregnant.”