“I'm in labour. I'm telling you I am in labour.” - What is the experience of being a pregnant woman in prison? Findings of an ethnographic study.

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, with pregnant women making up around 6% of the female prison population. There are limited qualitative studies published that document the experiences of pregnancy whilst serving a prison sentence. My doctoral study presents a qualitative, ethnographic interpretation of the pregnancy experience in English prisons. The study took place during 2015-2016 and involved semi-structured interviews with 28 female prisoners in England who were pregnant, or had recently given birth whilst imprisoned, ten members of staff, and ten months of non-participant observation. This presentation focuses on how ‘institutional thoughtlessness’ of a patriarchal system can lead to dangers for perinatal women. From missed medication and a lack of basic provisions to inappropriate diagnosis of women in labour- my talk will bring this ground-breaking research to RCM members.
The main frustration that was articulated by all participants was not receiving basic rights and entitlements, e.g. nutrition, fresh air, medication and suitable bedding. The bureaucratic barriers facing the pregnant woman make her different from any other prisoner. The inconsistencies in receiving what she was entitled to as a pregnant woman varied across the prisons and was often dependent on individual staff knowledge. Without exception, women described their embarrassment and humiliation at being seen in public as a pregnant prisoner. Simply being pregnant necessitated regular public ‘outings’, to attend recurrent hospital appointments, a quite different experience from other prisoners. Having regular appointments and scans, often more frequently than in a normal low-risk pregnancy due to multiple health risk factors, also meant that a woman would have no warning about when she would be taken out of the prison, and therefore no time to prepare herself mentally or physically. Women reported being categorised by their crimes, losing their identity as a mother to existing children and as wife/partner if they were in a relationship prior to incarceration. Women would feel stripped of their individuality due to being grouped together as a homogenous collection of prisoners. Seamless collaboration is required between the Prison Service, NHS Trusts and charities to facilitate the support of pregnant women: this is especially important with regards to obstetric emergencies but also concerns care in early labour, the potential for precipitous birth and the timely debriefing of women should they endure a cell birth. Women should not be giving birth in prison cells and if, on a rare occasion, an unexpected birth occurs, the minimum she should expect is to have an appropriately-trained professional to support her and her baby. This research has given voice to pregnant imprisoned women and highlighted gaps in existing policy guidelines. In this sense, the study has the potential to springboard future inquiry and to be a vehicle for positive reform.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2018
EventRCM Annual Conference - Manchester Convention Centre, manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Oct 20185 Oct 2018


ConferenceRCM Annual Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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