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Pregnant women and new mothers shouldn’t be sent to jail, UK public says

<span>A vigil in London last year for Aisha Cleary, who died at HMP Bronzefield in 2019 when her mother gave birth to her alone in her prison cell without any support.</span><span>Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian</span>
A vigil in London last year for Aisha Cleary, who died at HMP Bronzefield in 2019 when her mother gave birth to her alone in her prison cell without any support.Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

The British public backs reforms to how pregnant women and mothers are sentenced in courts, a new poll shared with the Observer has found.

Polling conducted this month by Survation, on behalf of the campaign group Level Up and the women’s charity One Small Thing, found 53% of respondents believed a mother with a baby should not be sent to prison with her infant if a community-based alternative was available. Only 28% disagreed, with the rest answering “don’t know”. A similar majority believed the long-term effects on a child should be a key consideration when sentencing a mother.

There is currently no obligation for judges to consider pregnancy or maternity in sentencing decisions.

The findings follow the end of a consultation by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales on revised guidelines for community and custodial sentences. A number of recent high-profile cases have highlighted issues of pregnancy and maternity in custody. In 2019, Aisha Cleary, a newborn baby, died in Surrey’s HMP Bronzefield when 18-year-old Rianna Cleary was left to give birth alone in a prison cell without assistance.

In 2020, 31-year-old Louise Powell gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Brooke, alone on a toilet in Cheshire’s HMP Styal when a prison nurse did not respond to emergency calls. Official figures show stillbirth is seven times more likely when a woman gives birth in prison.

Related: Revealed: one in three jailed pregnant women in England and Wales still to face trial

Dr Shona Minson, research fellow at Oxford University and leading expert on maternal sentencing, said evidence showed women as a whole were less likely to commit further offences when sentenced within the community. “A short sentence of imprisonment can mean a woman loses her home, job and children. If she is also pregnant, her baby and herself are put at risk as a prison is not a safe place for mother or baby due to the limited healthcare available,” Minson said.

“These risks make a custodial sentence a disproportionate punishment for a pregnant woman.”

Sophie*, 40, spent part of her pregnancy six years ago in prison and lived in its mother and baby unit for the first 14 months of her son’s life. “I look back and think of the stress I carried throughout my pregnancy when my baby was developing. He must have felt that stress every single day. How was that fair on my child? For a pregnant woman or mother, the punishment of prison is doubled,” she said.

“We were like caged animals: you felt like if you put a foot out of place, the officers would take your baby away. They shine a torch in your room at night if your baby cries. It’s a suffocating, stressful environment.”

Sophie’s son is now six and has behavioural issues which she attributes to the stress of infancy in prison. She does not know how to tell him about the first 14 months of his life, she said.

Esther Sample, head of policy, research and influencing at One Small Thing, said the imprisonment of women and mothers saw “lives torn apart across generations”.

“This is needless and preventable, and alternatives exist such as diversion schemes, problem-solving courts, support from women’s centres, or Hope Street, our pilot residential community in Hampshire. The community justice sector needs to be prioritised and invested in so we can prevent the cycle of trauma that imprisonment creates for mothers and their children.”

Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, said: “While sentencing must be based on evidence, not public opinion, it should be encouraging to courts to know that the public do not want to see mothers and babies in prison where community alternatives are available. The Sentencing Council must introduce new measures that bring an end to the needless harm that so many pregnant women, mothers and babies endure in prisons. Prison will never be the best start in a child’s life and even short sentences can have a lifelong negative impact.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said improvements had been made. “This includes employing specialist mother and baby liaison officers in every women’s prison, conducting additional welfare checks and stepping up screening and social services support.”

*Name has been changed