By Isabel Ringrose
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2866

Coroner finds that the prison system led to a baby’s death 

A baby died after her mother was forced to give birth all alone in her cell inside HMP Bronzefield in Surrey
Issue 2866
prisons pregnancy women

Women are being made to go through the ordeal of going through prison while pregnant

A coroner has found “ample evidence that serious systemic failures” contributed to the death of a newborn baby, whose black 18 year old mother was left to give birth alone in a prison cell. Aisha Cleary was born during the night on 26 September 2019. Her mother Rianna was held at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey.

It’s the largest female prison in Europe. Rianna said, “Nothing can change the nightmare I went through or bring Aisha back. I feel so sad ­knowing that Aisha may have ­survived if they had helped me. 

“If it wasn’t for this inquest, they would still be blaming me for giving birth alone.” In her statement, Cleary ­questioned why she had been failed so badly. “I wondered at that time if I was being treated differently because of my race, because I was young, or because of my past,” she said.

Coroner Richard Travers could not find sufficient evidence to confirm Aisha was stillborn, meaning it was possible she was born alive. 

If a midwife had been present, it is more than likely that Aisha would have survived. Prison staff knew there was a risk Rianna might give birth alone in her cell, but prison health services failed to provide a plan.

Offender Manager Carleigh Marshall refused to help Rianna get bail and instead referred to her as a “gangster”. 

The inquest also found the ­midwifery care was “highly ­inappropriate and unprofessional”. Rianna went into labour and, at around 8.07pm used the intercom in her cell to request urgent help. 

The call was answered by prison officer Mark Johnson. He didn’t call a nurse or ambulance, and no one checked on Rianna. He is now under disciplinary investigation.  Rianna pressed the emergency bell again at around 8.32pm.

The call was disconnected in the prison communications room at 8.45pm. At 8.15am, a prison officer unlocked Rianna’s cell but did not notice the blood on the walls and floor of the cell. Rianna woke ­without realising she’d given birth to discover Aisha on the bed, who was purple. 

Over 12 hours since she first called for help, at 8.21am, two other prisoners alerted prison staff to Rianna’s situation. 

Nurses attempted to resuscitate Aisha and called an ambulance. At 9.03am, paramedics confirmed Aisha had died. There were 196 pregnant women in prison between April 2022 to March 2023. In the last two years two babies, including Aisha, have died in prison.

Women in prison are seven times more likely to have a stillbirth and twice as likely to give birth to a ­premature baby.  The sentencing council is ­reviewing the way pregnant women are sentenced this September. 

Currently there is no statutory duty for judges to take pregnancy or parenthood into consideration when making sentencing or bail decisions. Deborah Coles is director of the ­Inquest charity which has done important work to raise awareness of this issue.

She said, “These conclusions are a ­shocking and damning indictment of the utter failure to keep Aisha and her mother safe, both long before and during her deeply traumatic time in prison.

“We need to dismantle prisons and redirect resources to ­holistic, gender responsive community services.” Stop sending pregnant women to prison.

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‘Women should not be in prison while pregnant,’ says former prisoner  

 The death of baby Aisha was not an isolated incident—being forced to go through pregnancy and give birth in prison is a tragic reality for many women. 

Suzy found out she was pregnant just before being locked up for six months on remand. “It was the best news and the worst time,” she told Socialist Worker.

“It’s not safe for women to be in prison while pregnant. When you become a prisoner, you lose all your human rights—they don’t exist. Prisons can’t provide all the required medical services, and processes prevent us from accessing emergency care. Suzy was only given a leaflet for support during her pregnancy. “It was about options, like termination. The rest was just up in the air—I was left in the unknown.

“I got very big very fast. I was hungry a lot. I asked officers if I could have more food, but they said, ‘No. Everybody gets the same portion.’ There was very poor basic hygiene, like roast potatoes or cooked rice with dirt on.”

Suzy also wasn’t allowed to share food. “But there were lovely cleaners who took methadone so said they didn’t have an appetite. They’d wait until we were locked up, then pass sandwiches through my window.” As her pregnancy continued, life in the small cell became more uncomfortable. “I was sleeping on a thin metal slatted bed. I asked how to get a duvet, and they said it’s a privilege for enhanced prisoners. Warmth wasn’t a basic need, but something I had to earn.”

While in prison, inmates are only allowed a certain amount of clothes. “My partner would bring me new clothes every few weeks because I was getting so big, but I’d have to exchange what I needed for what I had,” Suzy explained.

One night during her pregnancy Suzy experienced pain and bleeding. It took hours for her to be discharged to A&E, where she was handcuffed.

“When we saw the doctor, all decisions were made for me,” she said.  Suzy was told to come back to prison after the weekend. Despite her ordeal, she feared being too visibly upset may lead to punishment for being aggressive or being put on suicide watch.

“When I was back in my cell, I cried all night because I thought my baby had died,” Suzy said. The next morning she couldn’t get out of bed, but an officer threatened her with punishment if she didn’t. 

“The other ladies brought me food and changed my sheets—it’s only the prisoners who have any compassion.”

Suzy returned to the hospital on Monday and was told everything was okay.  But she slammed the prison system as “archaic”.  “When it comes to being a parent especially, it seems like they inadvertently treat our babies and children like prisoners too. 

“I want to share my story so people fight for drastic change.”

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