Pregnant women in prison at greater risk of pregnancy complications and baby loss

We’re joining leading organisations and figures from across the pregnancy and maternity, human rights, and justice sectors in calling on the government to keep pregnant women, new mothers, and their babies safe.

In the past year, 50 births took place in UK prisons. In an average week 29 pregnant women were held in prison, and 40 babies were held in prison with their mothers.

Yet evidence shows that mothers and babies held in custody during pregnancy and infancy face serious health risks and developmental trauma.

  • Pregnant women in prison are 5 times more likely to experience a stillbirth than women in the community
  • Pregnant women in prison are almost twice as likely to give birth prematurely as women in the general population, which puts both mothers and babies at risk
  • 1 in 10 pregnant women in prison give birth in a cell or on the way to hospital
  • At least 2 babies have died in women’s prisons in the past 3 years

Research into the experiences of pregnant women in English prisons also found that they faced serious stress and were unable to access basic comfort, good nutrition or fresh air. The fear of potential separation from their baby or the shame of being a mother in prison can also cause severe mental health problems.

In a letter co-ordinated by campaigners Level Up, we’re asking Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Brandon Lewis MP and the Rt Hon Lord Burnett of Maldon (Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales) to change sentencing and bail practices for pregnant women and new mothers.

We’ve signed the public letter alongside representatives from the Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, other pregnancy and healthcare charities, lawyers, academics, psychologists and others calling for change.

3 in 5 women prisoners are sentenced to less than 6 months in prison, and the most common offence among pregnant prisoners is shoplifting. 

Kath Abrahams, Tommy's Chief Executive, said: 

“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. Pregnant women in prison are 5 times more likely to have a stillbirth and twice as likely to give birth prematurely, leaving them and their babies at risk of long-term health complications. This is unacceptable. 

“As we work to improve maternity services across the UK, we cannot ignore pregnant women in the prison population simply because they are often ‘out of sight’."

Birte Harlev-Lam, the Royal College of Midwives’ Executive Director Midwife, said:

“Prison is no place for pregnant women. While there has been some progress in the training and guidance given to magistrates and judges, there are still too many custodial sentences being handed down to pregnant women. Many of these women are vulnerable, and prison poses a considerable risk to their health and well-being, and that of their babies. Access to good, or even adequate, maternity care is poor, and we have already seen the tragic consequences of that. The criminal justice system must change.”

Janey Starling, Level Up co-director said: 

“Pregnant women and new mothers may only be a tiny proportion of the prison population, but the risks are far too high for them to remain overlooked. The Sentencing Council has the power to prevent the senseless and needless harm that the prison system causes to pregnant women and new mothers – it’s time for them to take action.”