In 2017 I was giving a talk to a book group in a library, when a woman arrived late. She came in, all apologies, clutching my book in one hand, and holding on tightly to her thirteen-month-old daughter with the other. Her child tottered in that slow, Thunderbird-puppet way that signifies one who’s just learnt to walk. Her soft face, gap-toothed grinning at this new skill. It was obvious why they’d been delayed; the little girl’s tiny shoes unformed on her feet, waved in the air with each unpractised and dawdling step. Everyone made room for them. Cooing over the little girl. Budging up. This would have been a cute but fairly unremarkable moment, had the library not been within a prison. And the woman clutching the child’s hand a prisoner. It took a second for me to process: mother and baby were both living behind bars.
There is something genuinely shocking in seeing the sweet guileless, curl-framed face of a toddler, in the harsh, institutional backdrop of a prison. And as soon as I got back to my smartphone (no phones, computers, or electronic devices are allowed inside), I started to dig into the facts.
There are an estimated 1000 women who are currently pregnant in the UK prison system. Estimated, because no one keeps proper records. And there are only 64 Mother and Baby Unit (MBUs) places available. The Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings make for further concerning reading.
Women make up only 5% of the prison population in the UK, with 82% have committed a non-violent offence. But the use of custodial sentences for women has still halved in the last ten years. 79% suffer from mental health issues. 10% are foreign nationals, with many known to have been coerced or trafficked into offending. And the rates of self-harm of female prisoners are the highest among the prison system. Twelve female prisoners took their lives in 2016.
And this is before you consider the number of women (and men) in prison who are on remand. They’ve been charged with a crime, but are yet to go to court. They could be innocent. Regardless, many still find themselves separated from family and children on the outside. And, if the timing is bad, and they are pregnant, they face the realistic prospect of having a baby behind bars.
Part of the issue with women entering the penal system, is that they are still predominantly the heart of the family on the outside. Research carried out by the home office (Caddle and Crisp, 1997), suggests that 61% of female prisoners are mothers to under 18s. I have overheard female prisoners – who have queued to use one of the only working phones available to them – reminding family members back home that it’s football this term at school, and where to find Jimmy’s kit. They are still running the home from inside.
Alternatives to incarceration should be sought for women. And if we do imprison them, we should seek to not break up families and separate mothers from their new born babies. Despite the apparent disparity between supply and demand, many of the 64 MBU places available in the UK are not utilised. An expectant mother must present her case to a board (usually comprised of the governor, prison officials, and social services) without access to legal aid or assistance. If she fails to secure a place, and most do, the baby is removed at birth. The child is then either given to a family member outside, or passed into the care system. The mother is returned to her cell, usually with no access to counselling, and required to resume normal prison duties.
Despite writing crime procedurals and thrillers for a number of years, and being a long-term reader and consumer of crime fiction, I knew nothing of the plight of expectant and new mothers within the UK prison system. When that little girl toddled into my book group she brought with her the kernel of an idea. What if you were pregnant when you were framed for a crime, and sent to jail? How would you prove your innocence from inside? How would you protect your unborn child? And what would you do, if you failed to get a MBU place, and believed your baby was to be given to the very person who framed you? On My Life tells the story of Jenna, who faces this very real nightmare scenario.
Jenna knows she didn't do it. But she is running out of time to prove it... Framed. Imprisoned. Pregnant. Jenna thought she had the perfect life: a loving fiance, a great job, a beautiful home. Then she finds her stepdaughter murdered; her partner missing. And the police think she did it... Locked up to await trial, surrounded by prisoners who'd hurt her if they knew what she's accused of, certain someone close to her has framed her, Jenna knows what she needs to do: Clear her name, save her baby, find the killer.
Buy the book here.
Angela is a broadcaster, screenwriter, and The Sunday Times bestselling author of the Social Media Murders, including Follow Me, Watch Me and Trust Me. Angela has appeared on CBS Reality’s Written In Blood, on stage for BBC Edinburgh Fringe and on BBC News 24’s Ouch comedy special, at Noirwich, Camp Bestival, Panic! (in partnership with the Barbican, Goldsmiths University and The Guardian), City University, at HM Prisons, and hosted BBC 3 Counties Radio show Tales From Your Life. She won the Young Stationers' Prize 2015 for achievement and promise in writing. A sufferer of EDS III, Angela is passionate about bringing marginalised voices into publishing. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Research links for this article:
Birth Companions: https://www.birthcompanions.org.uk/resources/48-safeguarding-children-when-sentencing-mothers
Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Bromley%20Briefings/Prison%20the%20facts%20Summer%202019.pdf
Caddle and Crisp, 1997 https://hubble-live-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/birth-companions/attachment/file/55/Motherhood_disrupted.pdf