Inmate gave birth in prison toilet when nurse mistook labour for period pain

A woman who didn’t know she was pregnant gave birth to a stillborn baby in a toilet because prison staff assumed she was just experiencing period pains.

Staff at HMP Styal made a ‘serious error of judgment’ when they didn’t visit Louise Powell, 30, or properly assess her after she started bleeding in her cell block, an investigation has found.

The baby girl was born prematurely at between 27 and 31 weeks in June 2020 and the report from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister said it is not known if she may have survived had her mother been taken to hospital.

Ms Powell has said she ‘cannot forgive’ the prison for what happened to the baby – who she named Brooke – and called for action to be taken so that no women will have to experience similar ‘horror’ in prison.

In a statement to BBC Newsnight, she 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.’

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.

Staff and fellow inmates had ‘no suspicion’ Ms Powell was pregnant and she did not know herself until her labour began in the Cheshire prison, the report found.

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’.

Ms McAllister said the mother suffered a ‘terrifying, painful and traumatic experience’ and described the case as ‘deeply sad and distressing’.

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 Powell had been behind bars for three-and-a-half months and Ms McAllister was satisfied that prison staff did not miss any ‘obvious signs’ she was pregnant.

But she stressed there were ‘missed opportunities’ to identify she needed urgent clinical attention in the hours before she gave birth.

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’.

The case has already prompted the NHS to take action and pregnancy tests are now being offered to all women when they arrive in prison.

Staff are also being trained to detect the early signs of labour and ‘know what to do in the event of an unexpected birth’.

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.’

Spectrum Community Health CIC, which runs healthcare services at the prison, accepted the findings of the report and a spokeswoman said it is ‘fully committed’ to ensure that lessons are learnt.

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