Brooke Leigh Powell
This is a guest post written by Dr Lucy Baldwin with Louise Powell to commemorate Louise’s daughter, Brooke, who was still-born in a prison toilet at HMP Styal on 18 June 2020. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Sue McAllister, has today published her report investigating into what she describes as “shocking circumstances”. You can find the PPO report here.
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 via Russell. When she contacted 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.
The full story
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 powerlessness permanently. That would have been a travesty.
As Louise her self-states, it was important to her for Brooke’s birth and death to be investigated and acknowledged because:
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 a in a timely manner. However, what is certain 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.
Making a difference
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 (HMP Peterborough) new policy that pregnant mothers, where appropriate, will give birth whilst on ROTL (released on temporary licence) 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 Ministy of Justice (MoJ) were already in the process of responding to the Bronzefield babies deaths by undertaking and urgent review of the care of pregnant and new mothers in prison, which was published in July 2020. 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 newborn 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.
Prison can never be safe for pregnant women
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 an 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 actually – 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 Brook.