Pregnant women feel ‘degraded’ and ‘inhuman’ in prison, says Uni of Herts

PUBLISHED: 08:25 14 January 2020

Women in prisons claim they are not getting the support they need. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Women in prisons claim they are not getting the support they need. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.


Pregnant women in prisons often feel ‘degraded’ and ‘inhuman’, according to a University of Hertfordshire report.

Dr Laura Abbott, senior midwifery lecturer, published 'Pregnancy and childbirth in English Prisons: institutional ignominy and the pains of imprisonment' in the Sociology of Health and Illness on Friday.

The lecturer, based in Hatfield, found that many participants in her study recalled being handcuffed whilst attending a health appointment, which often "intensified" feelings of being humiliated and judged.

The women were often not viewed as a mother-to-be, something usually afforded to pregnant women in mainstream society, and often "disregarded".

And for many of the women pregnancy appeared secondary to their prisoner identity, which sometimes led to problems with their care.

In one case, a woman in spontaneous labour three-and-a-half weeks early was assessed by nursing staff not trained in midwifery.

A nurse came to her cell, examined her abdomen and told her she was not in labour.

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Within ten minutes of the nurse leaving, the woman's waters broke and she called for help again before giving birth in her cell.

Despite disagreeing with the nurse during the initial assessment, the woman "accepted her position of powerless prisoner, rather than labouring woman."

Many prison staff also expressed empathy towards pregnant women in prison, with one saying that "prison is not the place for a pregnant woman." However, some referred to them as "the pregnants", a collective name described in the report as a "dehumanising label".

Dr Laura Abbott said, "Despite extensive literature on the sociology of reproduction, pregnancy amongst women prisons is under-researched.

"Pregnant women experience additional difficulties compared to typical prisoners, including the ambiguity of their situation, physical aspects of pregnancy and the necessity to attend regular appointments in public settings.

"These difficulties can negatively impact the care they receive, their wellbeing and the safety of their pregnancy."

In total, 28 women took part in interviews: 22 whilst incarcerated and six following release from prison. 10 members of staff agreed to take part, including six prison service staff and four healthcare professionals.

The study was carried out from 2015 to 2016 and formed Dr Laura Abbott's doctorate, conferred in June 2018.

The report can be viewed here

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