Pregnancy in Prison – Past and Present

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. Today’s post from Rachel Bennett explores maternity care in the early days of female-only prisons.

Following one of her early visits to Newgate prison, Elizabeth Fry noted that “nearly three hundred women with their numerous children, were crowded [in the cells of the prison]; tried and untried, without classification, without employment, and with no other superintendence than that given by a man and his son, who had charge of them day and night.”[1] Mrs Fry would go on to help establish the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate and, later, the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. She also gave evidence to the 1818 House of Commons Committee on prison conditions. Among other things, during her work she advocated for the more tailored treatment of female prisoners based upon tenderness and religious instruction and argued that this more feminine approach needed to be delivered by female prison attendants.

Commencing in the mid-nineteenth century, my research examines whether, with the creation of the modern prison system and female-only prisons, the medical care afforded to inmates was differentiated on the basis of gender. The research is being completed as part of the ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland’ project, which is funded by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award. Please see a link to our website below.

A key area I am currently exploring is the question of what it was like to be pregnant and to have a baby in prison. Although my work is at an early stage, and this blog post is intended as an introduction to the subject area and to some of the themes emerging from my research thus far, it has already become clear to me that there were, and still are, various legal, practical and ideological issues and debates we have to consider when examining the incarceration of pregnant women. And, in many ways, these issues present contradictory accounts of contemporary thought and practice.

For example, in 1862 Henry Mayhew, a journalist and social researcher, wrote The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life along with John Binny. They had visited several London prisons and interviewed prisoners and prison officials in the composition of the work. When they visited Brixton women’s prison they stated that “the most touching portion of the female convict prison, and what distinguishes it essentially from all the penal institutions” was, what they termed, “the convict nursery.” They stated that the new mothers and their infants lived in an environment of toleration, care and religious enrichment.[2] However, alongside this almost idyllic scene they depicted, were wider debates over the social stigma attached to infants born in prison. There were reoccurring arguments highlighted in the newspapers and in petitions sent to the Home Secretary that pregnant women, at an advanced stage of gestation, should be moved to outside hospitals for the birth of their babies. However, arguments in favour of this becoming established practice rarely mentioned actual medical care or the ability of the prison setting to provide an appropriate environment for early child development, as was seemingly stressed by Mayhew and Binny. Instead they were couched in beliefs that being born in prison carried with it a stigma for the incarcerated women’s innocent infant.

Further key areas that I am currently exploring include the physical, mental and emotional ramifications of being pregnant in prison. There was some weight to arguments that the prison provided women of the poorest classes with medical care that they would likely not have had access to in the community. For example, during a debate over the ability of the Home Secretary to move pregnant women to outside hospitals for the birth of their child in 1937, Miss E.H. Kelly, an advocate of this practice, argued that she could find no fault with the treatment given to women during childbirth and was instead concerned with the social stigma attached to the child. In fact, she stated, if there could be any criticism of Holloway prison it was rather on the grounds of their “extravagance in dealing with the patients.”[3] However, pregnancy in prison often carried psychological stress that was exacerbated by women’s fears over their safety and the safety of their unborn child. In addition, this research has identified several stories of neglect and suffering due to the lack of proper medical care and access to specially trained staff within women’s prisons during pregnancy and childbirth. Within this, some of these cases were used by prison reformers and other activist groups to stress the need for enquiries into medical care and maternity practices in women’s prisons.

The Authorrachelbennett

Dr. Rachel Bennett is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick on the ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland’ project. Her research interests are medical care and maternity and childbirth practices in women’s prisons between the mid-nineteenth century and the present.


[1] A Memoir of Elizabeth Fry By Her Daughter Mrs Francis Cresswell (London: 1856), p. 85.

[2] Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, 1862), 189.

[3] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Thursday 14 October 1937, p. 3.


One thought on “Pregnancy in Prison – Past and Present

  1. Reblogged this on Irishwomenblog and commented:
    Very interesting. I remember hearing Gareth Pierce talking about Bernadette Devlin’s daughters arrest when Roisin was pregnant and being handcuffed to give birth. I would also have some links on prison gate visiting from Salvation Army too.

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