Inmate gives birth to stillborn baby in toilet after agony dismissed as ‘period pain’


The damning report highlighting HMP Styal’s failings is the second probe into the death of a baby inside a prison in six months, highlighting massive failures in the country’s system

Louise Powell, 30, on BBC Newsnight
Louise Powell, 30, on BBC Newsnight

A woman gave birth to a stillborn baby in a prison toilet after a nurse thought she was only having period pains, an independent prison report has found.

Prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister said that the stillborn had happened in “shocking circumstances” and that staff made a “serious error of judgement”.

Workers at HMP Styal decided not to visit inmate Louise Powell or assess her after she started bleeding and told them she was in pain, the report said.

Instead, they decided she was just having a painful period, it was noted.

Powell, 30, did not know she was pregnant at the time and did not believe she could be, according to the report.

She has said she “cannot forgive” the prison for what happened.

Sue McAllister, newly appointed Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, in her office at Castle buildings Stormont.
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There was no suspicion from fellow inmates or staff that she was pregnant until the baby girl was prematurely born in the toilet of the mother’s cell block.

The baby was thought to be between 27 and 31 weeks old and was born in June 2020.

The probe comes only months after another damning report that revealed how a newborn baby had died when a teenage girl gave birth alone in her cell, despite her screams for help.

The tragic death happened in HMP Bronzfield, in Middlesex, which is Europe’s largest women’s prison.

Ms McAllister said Powell had suffered a “terrifying, painful, and traumatic experience” in what she called a “deeply sad and distressing” case.

The duty nurse was called three times over the safety of the prisoner during a course of two hours.

But, without even visiting her or assessing her in person, the nurse “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.”

HMP Styal, Cheshire, where the child was stillborn
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Ms McAllister said she was satisfied that prison staff did not miss any “obvious signs” that Powell was pregnant during the three-and-a-half months she had been behind bars.

But there were “missed opportunities” to help in the hours before she gave birth.

In a statement to BBC Newsnight, 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.”

Chief executive of Women in Prison, Dr Kate Paradine, said: “This is the second report into the death of a baby in prison in six months and another example of a catastrophic failure of healthcare in prisons.

“Ms B spent hours in severe pain without pain relief or medical support. This should never have happened.

“Prisons are not safe for women, especially if they are pregnant, and they simply do not have access to healthcare that is equivalent to in the community.

“There is another way, when women are supported in the community, they have better access to the care they need and can tackle the issues that sweep them into crime in the first place, like trauma, domestic abuse, and poverty.”

The tragic death was branded a “catastrophic failure” of healthcare within UK prisons
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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”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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