Bronzefield women's prison: Death of a baby in jail should make us question whether pregnant women have to be locked up – Karyn McCluskey

There are terrible cases that change the shape of justice and how we respond. Picked up by the media, often only a few words convey the pain, mismanagement, missed opportunities and tragedy: Baby P, Soham, Victoria Climbié, Jamie Bulger – cases that exposed poor practice, organisational ineptitude or society to extreme circumstances that shocked and horrified.

A cell in HMP Bronzefield, a women's prison in Ashford, Middlesex (Picture: Tim Ockenden/PA)

These cases changed the UK and all of us in social work and in justice agencies. There are so many others with place-names like Hillsborough, Dunblane and Rotherham which gave rise to inquiries and invoke desperate pain.

I think that we should add another to that list – but I doubt that it will make it: Bronzefield. A report surfaced last week about the death of a baby in a prison.

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The details are terrible. Ms A, a vulnerable, pregnant 18-year-old, in prison for the first time, was terrified (rightly) that people were going to remove her baby. Saying she was sad and angry, she threatened to harm herself if that happened. Her childhood was traumatic and made her distrustful of authority.

To cut a terrible story short, she receives inadequate care, no one knows her delivery date, she is ignored when she asks for help going into labour, delivers the baby on her own and passes out. Later, she bites through the umbilical cord and ties it in a knot, puts the placenta in the bin, and lies back down with her baby.

No one knows if the baby died before or after birth – the prison had no neonatal resuscitation equipment regardless. The inquiry into the death said that staff showed little professional curiosity about why this young woman wouldn’t engage and “her care was inflexible, unimaginative and insufficiently trauma-informed”. People saw her as difficult and with a ‘bad attitude’.

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Too often we see the behaviour, not the person. Ms A said she thought staff were only interested in the baby, not her. Perhaps no one has ever been interested in her. I think her life was punctuated by neglect and pain, she had a range of coping behaviours which involved alcohol and cannabis, and this made her pregnancy more complicated and in need of better care, not less.

Staff talked about Ms A expressing fear, distress, worry about her child being removed. I think these are perhaps inadequate words – terrified, hysterical, extremely anxious are probably more suitable. To have your child removed is a terrible thing.

I don’t know the severity of the crime she was on remand for, if this young woman was at risk of causing someone else serious harm, but what we all know now, is that we should question whether prison is the place for pregnant women. I think we can do better, I think we can manage risk better.

Why don’t I think we will remember Ms A or Bronzefield? If I said Charles Bronson, a previous resident of Bronzefield, you might remember him. The media fuel for Mr Bronson thrived on notoriety and fear of his capacity for serious harm. Ms A had none of that, but her life-path put her in the same place, enduring a tragedy that is almost beyond comprehension, and all in isolation within a six-by-eight space.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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