A woman gave birth to a stillborn baby in “shocking circumstances” in a prison toilet after a nurse mistook her labour for period pain, a watchdog’s investigation has found.
Prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister said staff made a “serious error of judgment” when they did not visit an inmate or properly assess her after she started bleeding and reported being in pain – wrongfully deciding she was having a painful period.
The mother, Louise Powell, said she “cannot forgive” the prison for what happened.
The 30-year-old did not know she was pregnant and did not believe she could be, according to a report published on Tuesday.
Fellow inmates and staff at HMP Styal had “no suspicion” this was the case until the baby girl was born prematurely – possibly at between 27 and 31 weeks – in June 2020 in the toilet of her mother’s cell block of the Cheshire prison.
The findings come just months after a damning report revealed how a newborn baby died after a teenage girl gave birth alone in a cell in Europe’s largest women’s prison, HMP Bronzfield in Middlesex, despite calling staff for help.
In this report, Ms McAllister said the mother suffered a “terrifying, painful and traumatic experience” and described the case as “deeply sad and distressing”.
Prison staff called the duty nurse three times to raise concerns about the prisoner over two hours but, without visiting her or properly assessing her, “concluded incorrectly that she was bleeding and suffering severe stomach pain as a result of a painful period”.
The report added: “Regardless of the cause, it is not acceptable that anyone should be in unexplained acute pain for several hours without proper assessment or consideration of pain relief.”
Ms McAllister is not able to say whether the baby could have survived if her mother had been taken to hospital. But her report added: “We consider that this would need to be determined by a court on the basis of expert evidence commissioned for that purpose.”
While satisfied that prison staff did not miss any “obvious signs” she was pregnant during the three-and-a-half months she had been behind bars, there were “missed opportunities” to identify she needed urgent clinical attention in the hours before she gave birth, Ms McAllister said.
In a statement to BBC Newsnight, Ms Powell said: “The pain of Brooke’s death will never leave me. I cannot forgive the prison for leaving me when I was calling for help and I felt like I was dying. I was having a medical emergency and should have been urgently helped instead I was left. I want justice for Brooke so no other woman has to go through this horror in prison.”
Kate Paradine, chief executive of the charity Women in Prison, said the latest findings were “another example of a catastrophic failure of healthcare in prisons” and claimed jails “are not safe for women”.
Prisons minister Victoria Atkins said: “The tragic events detailed in this report should quite simply never happen to any woman or child, and my deepest sympathies remain with the mother.
“We have already implemented the report’s recommendations and important improvements have been made to the care received by pregnant women in custody. We are also looking at how we can better screen for pregnancy in jails so no woman falls through the cracks.
“But there is clearly much more to do to ensure expectant mothers in prison get the same support as those in the community – something I will continue to prioritise.”
The NHS said it had taken “prompt action” so “pregnancy tests are offered to all women when they arrive in prison” and staff are being trained to detect the early signs of labour and “know what to do in the event of an unexpected birth” – measures which were among a raft of recommendations made in the report.
Spectrum Community Health CIC, which runs healthcare services at the prison, accepts the findings of the report. A spokeswoman said it is “fully committed to ensure that lessons are learnt and that recommendations in the report are acknowledged and actioned following this tragic incident”.