How safe are UK prisons?

Former inmate describes ‘horror’ of giving birth to stillborn baby behind bars

A prison guard at HMP Pentonville, London
A prison guard at HMP Pentonville, London
(Image credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

A woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby while in custody has described her ordeal in a bid to make sure “no other woman has to go through this horror in prison”.

Louise Powell told the BBC that she didn’t know she was pregnant when she began having stomach cramps and bleeding in her cell at HMP Styal in Cheshire in June 2020. Her baby “was already half out” before she received clinical attention from a nurse, she said.

Powell, now 31, told the broadcaster’s Newsnight programme that she was “crying for help” and “should have been urgently helped. Instead, I was left.” Her stillborn baby girl, Brooke, was delivered prematurely and weighed 2.5lbs (1.1kg).

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A newly published report by the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman highlighted “missed opportunities” to identify that Powell – referred to as Ms B – needed urgent critical care. The duty nurse made “a serious error of judgement” in not attending despite being contacted three times by the supervising officer, said the watchdog.

Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins said that the “tragic events detailed in this report should quite simply never happen to any woman or child”. The government has “already implemented the report’s recommendations and important improvements have been made”, Atkins added, “but there is clearly much to do to ensure expectant mothers in prison get the same support as those in the community”.

Prison safety ‘crisis’

Wider questions about the safety of the UK’s almost 80,000 prison inmates have been highlighted by the case of Powell, who “was in prison for the first time after being sentenced to eight months in March 2020 after admitting common assault, racially aggravated harassment and criminal damage”, The Guardian reported.

A recent briefing by the Prison Reform Trust said that “safety in prisons has deteriorated rapidly during the last eight years”. Incidents of self-harm are “at historically high levels”, as are deaths and assaults, said the campaign group.

According to Ministry of Justice data, the number of deaths in prison custody rose by 40% year-on-year to 396 in the 12 months up to September 2021, including 81 suicides, which increased by 13%.

A total of 159 prisoner deaths were linked to Covid-19 in the 18 months from March 2020, when the UK first went into lockdown. Prisons also implemented operational changes to curb the spread of the virus between inmates, “but this came at the expense of prisoner welfare”, said the Institute for Government.

Many prisoners were “locked in their cells for 23 hours a day” and “denied purposeful rehabilitative activity”, which “will have had an as yet unrealised longer-term impact” on prisoners’ needs, the independent think tank warned.

A report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor’s report published last February concluded that “most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being”.

“Locking prisoners up in prolonged isolation has never been a feature of a healthy prison,” the report said.

Prisoner safety fears were already widespread before the pandemic, however. In 2020, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture described England’s prisons as “violent, unsafe and overcrowded”, and said the system was in “deep crisis”.

In the five years up to June 2018, the total number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults more than doubled, while assaults on staff more than tripled. A 2019 briefing by the Prison Reform Trust said that “prisoners and staff are less safe than they have been at any point since records began”.

Government response

Boris Johnson was widely criticised after joking at a closed-doors Conservative Party fundraising event last September that the UK could become “the Saudi Arabia of penal policy” under Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The prime minister’s comments, captured in video footage obtained by Business Insider, were condemned as “disgusting” and a “new low” by opposition politicians.

The Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson on home affairs, Alistair Carmichael, said: “We have real and serious problems with crime and the rule of law in our country that deserve better than sloppy punchlines behind closed doors.”

After becoming PM back in July 2019, Johnson unveiled plans for the most serious offenders to spend more time in prison. The Tory leader pledged to spend a further £100m on improving prison security, “including X-ray scanners and metal detectors, as well as technology to detect and block mobile phones”, the BBC repoted.

The government’s Beating Crime Plan also aims to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers in the UK by March next year, which will “lead to an influx of prisoners”, the Institute for Government predicted.

The think tank warned that, along with the clearing of the backlog of Covid-delayed court hearings, the plan “will put greater pressure on already crowded prisons”.

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Julia O'Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.