What is it about?

With a prison population of approximately 9000 women in England, it is estimated that approximately 600 pregnancies and 100 births occur annually. Despite an extensive literature on the sociology of reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth among women prisoners is under‐researched. This article reports an ethnographic study in three English prisons undertaken in 2015‐2016, including interviews with 22 prisoners, six women released from prison and 10 staff members. Pregnant prisoners experience numerous additional difficulties in prison including the ambiguous status of a pregnant prisoner, physical aspects of pregnancy and the degradation of the handcuffed or chained prisoner during visits to the more public setting of hospital. This article draws on Erving Goffman's concepts of closed institutions, dramaturgy and mortification of self, Crewe et al.'s work on the gendered pains of imprisonment and Crawley's notion of ‘institutional thoughtlessness’, and proposes a new concept of institutional ignominy to understand the embodied situation of the pregnant prisoner

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Why is it important?

With a prison population of approximately 9000 women in England, it is estimated that approximately 600 pregnancies and 100 births occur annually. Despite there being an extensive literature on the sociology of reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth, there has been scarce qualitative research looking specifically at pregnant prisoners.

Perspectives

The expression of shame was a probable expectation, given previous research and concepts of stigma. Nonetheless, findings reveal that ignominy was intensified as an institutional response to pregnancy when women felt paraded in public and branded with prisoner emblems. The inner torment this caused women was often expressed in indignance, that being a prisoner did not warrant what they perceived to be the public judgement that they were failing as a mother. The uniqueness of this finding suggests that pregnancy, and the resulting inevitability of regular outings in public for health assessments, accrues additional suffering and shame for a woman different from any other type of prisoner experience. Staff, although often demonstrating kindness, revealed conflict in wishing to support pregnant women without showing special treatment. Women, too, would often feel confusion in being treated as the same as a normal prisoner whilst feeling vexed that their pregnant status should be sacrosanct; this, juxtaposed with the tensions of not wishing to stand out, creating a sense of inner turmoil. From the outset, I was ambitious that this research would positively influence the way pregnant women in prison are perceived, make an impact on society and build a substantive theory about a phenomenon – institutional ignominy. I have been indelibly affected by the experiences of the women, and subsequently continue to campaign for better conditions. The impact of this research has already gained impetus at governance and policy level, see evidence given to the Joint Commitee on Human Rights, and Royal College of Midwives Position Statement ensuring increasing motivation to set about making changes happen. The English prison has a hidden and minority population of pregnant women confined within. This paper has illuminated some of their experiences, from the indignity and fear of birthing in a cell and the shame of feeling paraded in public, contextualising women’s voices. My hopes for the future are that we can reform the landscape for pregnant women in prison so that negative experiences detailed within this research are not replicated and the opportunities for transformation are realised to their full potential.

Dr Laura Abbott
University of Hertfordshire

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This page is a summary of: Pregnancy and childbirth in English prisons: institutional ignominy and the pains of imprisonment, Sociology of Health & Illness, January 2020, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.13052.
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