A baby never forgotten – how a DMU academic is helping the mother of a baby stillborn in a prison toilet campaign for change

The shocking story of a prisoner who gave birth to a stillborn baby in the toilet of a cell after being left alone while ‘crying for help’ has made headlines around the UK today.

TV, radio and newspaper reports have told how Louise Powell, 31, who did not know she was pregnant, had begged for an ambulance before her baby, Brooke Leigh Powell, died at HMP Styal in Cheshire in 2020.

A Prisons and Probations Ombudsman report has this week said there were "missed opportunities" to identify Ms Powell’s urgent clinical needs while a duty nurse made "a serious error of judgment" by not visiting Ms Powell after they were contacted three times about the severe pain

De Montfort University Leicester’s Dr Lucy Baldwin, a senior lecturer and a researcher into maternal imprisonment with 30 years of experience, was contacted by Ms Powell and Dr Baldwin helped ensure there was 'a fair and proper investigation' held into the case.

They have today written their story  on the Russel Webster research blog in memory of baby Brooke, which we have republished below.

A Baby Never Forgotten. A Tribute To Brooke Leigh Powell

Baldwin and Powell HAND PRINTS MAIN

I will never forget sitting in my study last June and hearing the news that another baby had been born in prison, and that she had tragically died. I was heartbroken and outraged and immediately voiced that to whoever I thought would listen. My heart went out to the mum, and I cried for her.

As a mother who has lost children, I had some understanding of how she would be feeling. There is quite simply no loss like the loss of a child. But what I couldn’t imagine was her shock, her absolute bewilderment at her situation given that she didn’t know that she was pregnant. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to give birth in a prison,  let alone in a toilet – and in a blind panic with everyone around you seemingly not knowing what to do. That, I could not imagine. Few of us could.

I had no way of knowing then that the column,  ‘Why has another baby died in prison’, which I felt compelled to write, hosted here by Russell Webster, would lead to the mum, Louise Powell, contacting me. She simply said: 'I wanted to speak to you because I could tell you cared, and I wanted to thank you’.

It blew my mind that this mum who had gone through the most horrendous experience and had lost her precious little girl, was thanking me. But that is the measure of Louise, of who she is — people are so often quick to judge women who go to prison (especially mothers), and to assume prison is full of ‘bad people’.

Prison is full of good people who might have made a mistake, but who also really shouldn’t be there. Louise is one of those people. She will be embarrassed by me saying this, but she is one the people I admire most in the world, she is decent and kind, intelligent and honourable; and she loved her daughter Brooke beyond words. Louise might not have known she was pregnant (because of the circumstances in which she was conceived – Louise was spiked), but she couldn’t have loved her daughter more.

Louise would have been a fantastic mum to Brooke, and I hope more than anything one day she gets to be a mum again and that I am still in her life when she does.

Through my contacts I was able to put Louise in touch with a Barrister, who I knew was as passionate as I am about care for imprisoned mothers, and who agreed to take on Louise and Brooke’s case. This Barrister worked with Louise to secure a full and fair investigation; an investigation that has resulted in the report published today. It was our fear that without legal representation Louise’s and Brooke’s story would never have been fully told. The mistakes in their care never appropriately or publicly acknowledged, rendering Louise and Brooke silent and powerless permanently. That would have been a travesty.

As Louise herself says, it was important to her for Brooke’s birth and death to be investigated and acknowledged because: “What happened simply should not have. There was time for Brooke to be helped if someone had listened to me and the others asking for help. Also I needed to make sure that this does not happen to any other pregnant women in prison.”

Louise describes what happened to her as ‘devastating’. The report describes in detail the series of events and failings surrounding Brooke’s birth and death, concluding with recommendations for future care of pregnant mothers in prison. It concludes that it can never be known for certain that Brooke would have still been alive if Louise had been responded to more appropriately, and with more care, compassion and in a timely manner. However, what iscertain is that Brooke would have had a better chance of living. Instead, Louise was robbed of a positive birth experience and robbed of the opportunity to be a mother to Brooke. Sadly, those things are permanent.

Another admirable motivation of Louise’s to challenge what happened to her and to uncover the failings in her care, was ‘to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, to make sure no other mum goes through what I have’. 

It is clear that the deaths of Brook, and of the baby stillborn in a cell birth at HMP Bronzefield (September 2019), and of another baby dying en route to hospital from HMP Bronzefield (December 2017), have prompted significant change. For once the often trite ‘lessons will be learned’ trope that is rolled out after a serious or fatal incident, has come to fruition.

There have been many positive changes and several more in the pipeline. For example, I am working closely with Sodexo in a year-long ‘Motherhood Project’ that has seen some significant and positive changes in practice related to incarcerated mothers, not least Sodexo’s new policy that pregnant mothers will give birth whilst on Release On Temporary Licence (ROTL) and that all pregnant prisoners will be located on a dedicated wing, with additionally trained staff.

Sodexo have demonstrated a real commitment to improving their care and understanding the needs of imprisoned mothers.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) were already in the process of responding to the Bronzefield  babies deaths  by undertaking an urgent review of the care of pregnant and new mothers in prison, which was published in July 2020.

Baldwin and Powell STYAL PRISON MAIN

However, following Brooke’s death the policy and operational guidance was revisited and further recommendations and directives have followed. There is a real commitment from the MoJ to ensure tragedies like Brooke’s and the two previous babies are avoided at all costs.

Similarly, following the tragic suicide of Michelle Barnes, who took her life in prison days after being separated from her new-born baby, ‘lessons were learned’ and HMP Low Newton implemented policies and established practices which are of such a standard that they are considered a model of excellence and are influencing pregnancy and maternity care policies throughout the female estate.

However, it has to be said that prison can never fully be a safe space for pregnant women, and we alongside Birth Companions, Women in Prison (WiP) and Level Up support the campaign to end the sentencing of pregnant and new mothers to imprisonment.

There is no doubt that the policy and practice changes that have been inspired by the tragedies described above are positive, but the only way to truly ensure that the risks to criminalised mothers and  their babies are maximally reduced is to keep them out of prison and  develop and use community based alternatives similar to Trevi House,  Phoenix Futures and the forthcoming Hope Street. 

Louise was serving her first prison sentence and there is no doubt that she could have benefitted from a community alternative to prison. For Louise the questions permanently in her mind are that if she had been sentenced differently would her daughter now be a bouncy thriving toddler.

The never-ending pain for Louise is that she will never know the answer to that question. Brooke was one of the most beautiful new-born babies I have ever seen, dainty and unquestionably feminine and delicate. She and her mother deserved better. To Louise, Brooke was ‘perfect’.

We must continue to improve on the care and support for pregnant women in prison and for all mothers – but we must do this without losing sight of the ultimate goal which would be, wherever possible, no pregnant prisoners in prison at all. Fundamentally that is the only certain way we have of avoiding tragedies like the death of beautiful Brooke. 

Posted on Tuesday 11 January 2022

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