Mothers and babies in prison

In the UK over 60 percent of women prisoners have young children. Women are nearly always the primary care-givers and are often single mothers. At least 4,000 children are affected by their mothers' imprisonment. Only three percent of women have a child in prison with them. So children have to be farmed out. Most are living with their mothers prior to the woman's imprisonment and for 85 percent it is the first time they have been separated for more than a day or two. Siblings are often separated. There is evidence that most children become withdrawn and depressed. One in four has difficulty sleeping or becomes physically ill. Seventy percent see their mother only once a month or less.

Half of all babies under one year who are in care because their mothers are in prison are moved between 2 and 4 different homes. We know that it is vital for babies in the first year of life to form a strong attachment to one person. From this grows a sense of security and trust, self-esteem and the capacity to love. The enforced separation of mothers and babies is another form of violence against women and is an abuse of our power over children.

June 2008
Women in Prison and Children of Imprisoned Mothers publication series
Women in Prison Commentary on the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
by Megan Bastic and Laurel Townhead

The Corston Report:   13 March 2007
A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.
A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, outlining the need for a distinct radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach.

The Home Office Response to the Corston Report December 2007


Birth Companions
Annual Report
2006 - 2007


Prisoner chained in a maternity hospitalSheila believes that pregnancy, birth and motherhood offer opportunities for growth in understanding and for maturation. A woman may develop a sense of responsibility because she is now a mother. Yet during pregnancy a woman in prison is uncertain whether she can keep her baby until a prison board makes a decision approximately six weeks before the birth. She is in limbo. She may switch off emotionally from the pregnancy or may enter a state of grieving. One woman who was told that her baby would be taken away said to Sheila just after her baby was born, ”I dare not pick her up and cuddle her. I can't go on. I cannot go on living.”

Sheila worked to get women out of chains during childbirth some years ago, and when this was achieved suggested that woman-to-woman support schemes should be set up. As a result the Holloway Doulas were formed. Doulas are, in effect, birth sisters who give emotional support and practical friendship in pregnancy, during birth, and afterwards.

Now we are hoping to create a nation-wide network of support. Get in touch with Sheila by e mail at, if you are interested in this project.


Diane Caddle and Debbie Crisp: Imprisoned Women and Mothers, Research Study 162, Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate, 1997

J.H. Kennell, M.H. Klaus, and P.H.Klaus. Bonding - Building the Foundations of Secure Attachment and Independence. Cedar, London, 1996

J.H.Kennell and M.H.Klaus, Bonding: Recent Observations that Alter Perinatal Care, US Academy, 19, 1998

HM Prison Service, Report of a review of Principles, Policies and Procedures on Mothers and Babies/Children in Prison, 1999


The Independent November 2003

Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons

We should care about our prisons

It is particularly the marginalised who need the protection of human rights.

By definition prisons are closed environments. They operate outside the normal controls and processes of society; and it is often the case that society as a whole is less than interested about what happens behind their walls. We do not talk of “our prisons” as we talk of “our” schools and hospitals; politicians rarely feel the need to promise more prison officers, as they do more police or more doctors and teachers.

Because they are out of sight and out of mind, prisons need to have a light shone on them, so that society as a whole can know what is being done in its name.


The Independent January 27th 2003

Speaking at King's College Law School, Cherie Booth, QC described how the separation of a baby from her Jamaican mother in prison, born after she was jailed for trying to smuggle cocaine into Britain, breached her human rights. The woman gave birth to her son in April 2002 and they were allowed to stay together until September, when the authorities made the decision to send the baby to a friend of the mother's to be fostered. The judge found that the removal of the baby breached the mother's human rights and the child's rights to a family life.

Cherie Booth, commented: The true import of the human rights act is that it is intended to introduce a new moral underpinning to law and to state action ... but the Human Rights Act also asks that we look beyond the law.

We need to look to the development of a more broadly based human rights culture within the UK – one which informs not just relationships between individuals and among wider communities.


Feb 2000

In correspondence with Sheila Kitzinger, Martin Narey, the former Director General of HM Prison Services, commenting on staffing levels at Holloway which meant that women prisoners had to remain in their rooms for longer, which they found very stressful: “It has now been made clear to staff that this is unacceptable, and women on the unit should have full association and not be confined to their rooms for prolonged periods”. He goes on to say “So long as I am Director General, no baby will ever again be separated from his or her mother unless separation is in the baby's interest. Prison is a very difficult place for a mother to bring up a baby but I can promise you that I am committed to making the environment as caring as possible.”

He agreed that “during times of staff shortage and vacancies such as Holloway has experienced recently, it is possible that staff without a keen insight into mothers' needs have been on duty, on the unit there. I can assure you that we are taking the preparation of staff to work on the mother and baby units very seriously. A new training module is about to be piloted especially for these staff. There is also a continual dialogue between the Women's Policy Group and the staff of each mother and baby unit as part of their informal monitoring roles. I will shortly appoint a national co-ordinator to oversee developments and formally monitor standards”.



A doula is a Greek word for a woman who helps another in childbirth.

Penny Simkin as a doula Sheila became aware of the needs of women prisoners who were having babies and took action with others to end the use of handcuffs in childbirth, a goal achieved in 1996. The plight of prisoners giving birth without any support from friends and family also became clear. Sheila's article in the National Childbirth Trust Teachers' mailing inspired a voluntary group of London based antenatal teachers to set up the "Holloway Doula Group". Holloway is the largest women's prison in Europe. The Holloway Doulas have now become the Birth Companions.

Doulas for Women prisoners

Diana Parkinson
Co-ordinator of

A prisoner's mother says:

"When I arrived at the hospital I was surprised to see a woman comforting and cherishing my daughter. She not only stayed for the birth but she and another 'birth sister' helped with the care of mother and baby throughout their time in hospital. They are the most selfless people I have ever met".

We offer support to women from Holloway Prison. Prisoners are allowed to have a companion of their choice. For many, a friend or family member can be there. However, sometimes, and particularly for foreign nationals, there is no-one who can be with them. There can be nothing more terrifying than going through labour on your own with no-one to turn to for support and reassurance. As a group of ten antenatal teachers, student teachers and student midwives, we are well placed to offer doula support. We are non-judgmental and provide a sensitive service, based on informed and individual care for each woman who requests our help, helping communication between them and their health professionals and serving as advocates. We are also particularly well-placed to monitor the level of care that each woman receives from the hospital and the prison authorities.

Women are made aware of us through antenatal classes, literature distributed and displayed in the prison and other involved groups. Any woman who requests our support is sent our guidelines and is visited by a member of the Birth Companions who gets to know her and discusses with her a birth plan. When she goes into labour, she contacts us (via a pager). One of us meets her at the hospital and stays with her continuously through labour. If necessary, other members of the group also support her during the birth and in the days she spends in hospital.

We aim to do this for every woman from Holloway prison who requests our services.

A prisoner writes:
I was made to feel at ease and even though in a lot of pain I was conscious of her always being there. I had more faith and trust in my birthing partner than anyone else .... You guys have rebuilt my trust and faith in human nature.

For further information click the image to visit their web site:

Other Information - Web sites

Amnesty International Amnesty International

Read "Not Part of My Sentence:
Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody"
Stop Violence Against WomenAlso see this campaign

Prison Reform Trust

Well focused organisation with a dynamic website.

Howard League for Penal Reform

The London based Howard League has an excellent web site including Weekly Prison Watch

Prison Inspectors site

Complete detailed reports on scheduled and surprise inspections of many prisons in the UK

Prison Ombudsmen

A backwater UK site but may become useful in future
HM Prison Service Large up-to-date prison site - published by the British Home Office. Well presented with a wide range of information
Includes a Report from Amnesty USA.
Sexual Misconduct and Shackling of Pregnant Women

Rudolf Vis M.P. Reported on
Mothers and Babies in Prison
to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

(document 8762, 9th June 2000).

The report recommended that in view of the adverse affects of imprisonment of mothers and babies the Committee of Ministers should invite member states:

  1. to develop and use community based penalties for mothers of young children and to avoid the use of prison custody;
  2. to develop education programmes for criminal justice professionals on the issue of mothers and young children, using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention of Human Rights;
  3. to recognise that custody for pregnant mothers and mothers of young children should only ever be used as a last resort for those women convicted of the most serious offences and who represent a danger to the community;
  4. to develop small scale secure and semi-secure units with social services support for the small number of mothers who do require such custody, where children can be cared for in a child-friendly environment and where the best interests of the child will be paramount, but where security can be offered to the public;
  5. to develop appropriate guidelines so that courts would only consider custodial sentences for pregnant women and nursing mothers when the offence was serious and violent and the woman represents a continuing danger;
  6. to report back on the progress made by the year 2005.

Other Information


Prison-Gate: The Shocking State of Britain's Prisons and the need for Visionary Change
Chapters 1 - HMP Holloway, 13 – 14 December 1945
Chapter 11 - Women in Prison : HMP Holloway

A fascinating book! 

Ramsbotham, David Free Press, London
Children of Incarcerated Parents Gabel, K & Johnston, D Leamington Books, New York 1995

HM Inspectorate of Prisons Publications

Women in Prison: A Thematic Review London, July 1997
Follow-up to Women in Prison, A Thematic Review
Chapter 11 - Women in Prison : HMP Holloway
London, July 2001


Abstract and comments by Sheila Kitzinger on
Health Outcomes of Incarcerated Pregnant Women and their Infants in a community-based programme.
MIDIRS Midwifery Digest Vol 13,1 Mar 2003
Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System The Home Office
Research, Development & Statistics Directorate
Babies behind bars by Julie Akhurst Junior Issue 12 Jan/Feb 2000
BMJ editorial
Prisoners: an end to second class health care?
Richard Smith
British Medical Journal BMJ 1999; 318: 954-955. April 1999
Jailing mums 'puts children at risk'
The soaring number of mothers in prison could cause psychological damage to their children and create a new generation of offenders.
The Guardian   14 March 99
Birth in Prison: The rights of the baby by Sheila Kitzinger The Practicing Midwife Vol 2, 1 Jan 99
The hardest labour of all
The prison system's treatment of a birthing woman
- Roisin McAliskey by Sheila Kitzinger
The Guardian   16 Mar 98
How Can We Help Pregnant Women and Mothers In Prison?
by Sheila Kitzinger
Birth Vol 24 No 3 Sept 1997
Women Prisoners Freed from Birth Chains: Successful Campaign
by Sheila Kitzinger
Birth Vol 23 No 3 Sept 1996
Caring for Pregnant Prisoners The Royal College of Midwives   Mar 1996
Health Outcomes of Incarcerated Pregnant Women and Their Infants in a Community-based Programme
Violet H. Barkauskas, PhD, RN, Lisa Kane Low, CNM, PhD and Sheryl Pimlott, MSW, PhD(c)
Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health Vol. 47, No. 5 Sept/Oct 2002
Attachment Between a Mother and her Baby – Submission to the Working Party on Mothers and Babies in Prison
Marshall H Klaus, Adjunct Professor of Paediatrics
University of California, San Francisco    
Mothers and babies within the prison system
Lynn Scott and Sue Blantern
British Journal of Midwifery   Aug 1998
Babies doing Time
Sandra Roberts
Grace, Auckland, New Zealand, 1999    
Mother knows best, but who decides?
Ian Burrell
The Independent, UK   18 Jan 2000
What it's like to be a woman on the inside
Angela Devlin
The Evening Standard, UK   17 Jul 1997


HMSO Publications

Report of a Review of Principles, Policies and Procedures on Mothers and Babies/Children in Prison – Response and Action Plan December 1999

Home Office, (1997) Imprisoned Women and Mothers , Diane Caddle and Debbie Crisp, Research Study 162, A Research and Statistics Directorate Report

Home Office (1998) Age Limits for Babies in Prison: Some Lessons from Abroad, D Caddle, Research Findings No. 80, Home Office Research Development and Statistics Directorate, London

Home Office (1997) Mothers in Prison, Diane Caddle and Debbie Crisp, Research Findings No. 38, Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate, London

Richards, M. et al. (1996) Imprisonment and family ties. Home Office Research and Statistics Bulletin No. 38 London: HMSO

Howard League Publications

The Howard League, In the Best Interests of Babies? – The Howard League submission to the Prison Service review of principles, policies and procedures for mother and babies/children in prison, Howard League, London, 1998

Howard League (1995) Prison Mother and Baby Units, Howard League, London

Howard League (1997) Pregnant and in Prison, Howard League, London

Howard League (1999) Babies behind Bars, Frances Crook, HLM, February 1999, Volume 17, No.1, Howard League, London

Richards, M. et al. (1995) Foreign nationals in English prisons: 1. Family ties and their maintenance. The Howard Journal Vol 34 No 2 May 1995, London


Department of Health, Inspection of Facilities for Mothers and Babies in Prison: Third Multi-Disciplinary Inspection by the Department of Health, November 1995 – February 1996, London

Council of Europe, 2000, Mothers and babies in prison, Vis, Rudolf, United Kingdom, Socialist Group

Women Who Challenge Nacro Publications (tel 020 7582 6500)

All-Party Group on Maternity Out of sight: out of mind? The maternity experiences of women seeking asylum.
18th March 2004 Committe Room 17, House of Commons, London. Susan Solanki