The Incarcerated Pregnancy: an Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons
Abbott, Laura Jane
The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, with pregnant women making up around 6% of the female prison population. There are limited qualitative studies published that document the experiences of pregnancy whilst serving a prison sentence. This doctoral thesis presents a qualitative, ethnographic interpretation of the pregnancy experience in three English prisons. The study took place during 2015-2016 and involved semi-structured interviews with 28 female prisoners in England who were pregnant, or had recently given birth whilst imprisoned, ten members of staff, and ten months of non-participant observation. Follow-up interviews with five women were undertaken as their pregnancies progressed to birth and the post-natal phase. Using a sociological framework of Sykes’ (1958) ‘pains of imprisonment’, this study builds upon existing knowledge and highlights the institutional responses to the pregnant prisoner. My original contribution to knowledge focuses on the fact that pregnancy is an anomaly within the patriarchal prison system. The main findings of the study can be divided into four broad concepts, namely: (a) ‘institutional thoughtlessness’, whereby prison life continues with little thought for those with unique physical needs, such as pregnant women; and (b) ‘institutional ignominy’ where the women experience ‘shaming’ as a result of institutional practices which entail their being displayed in public and characterised with institutional symbols of imprisonment. The study also reveals new information about the (c) coping strategies adopted by pregnant prisoners; and (d) elucidates how the women navigate the system to negotiate entitlements and seek information about their rights. Additionally, a new typology of prison officer has emerged from this study: the ‘maternal’ is a member of prison staff who accompanies pregnant, labouring women to hospital where the role of ‘bed watch officer’ can become that of a birth supporter. This research has tried to give voice to pregnant imprisoned women and to highlight gaps in existing policy guidelines and occasional blatant disregard for them. In this sense, the study has the potential to springboard future inquiry and to be a vehicle for positive reform for pregnant women across the prison estate.