Pregnant women at a prison in which a teenager gave birth alone in her cell to a baby later found dead have been given rape alarms to carry to summon urgent assistance, the Guardian has learned.
Aisha Cleary died in her mother’s cell at the privately run HMP Bronzefield in Surrey, the biggest women’s prison in Europe, in September 2019.
Although Rianna Cleary, who was 18 at the time, had repeatedly pressed her “cell bell” to summon assistance, she was in labour for more than 12 hours before anyone came to help her – by which time she was covered in blood with her dead baby. She had bitten through the umbilical cord as she had no other way to sever it.
The revelation has led to renewed calls from campaigners to end the incarceration of pregnant women. In 2022-23, there were 44 births by women in custody in England and Wales, 98% of them in hospital.
Related: The tragedy of Rianna and baby Aisha: why a teenager gave birth all alone in a prison cell
Rape alarms have also been distributed in other prisons where pregnant women are not incarcerated. Sodexo, the company that runs HMP Bronzefield, said there was no problem with cell bells at the prison.
Sodexo labels the rape alarms as “personal alarms” and Ministry of Justice sources describe them as “alternative alarms”.
A court of appeal ruling on Thursday quashed the custodial conviction of a heavily pregnant female prisoner at HMP Bronzefield who had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. It was replaced with a suspended sentence that allowed her to be immediately released from jail so that she can give birth in the community.
The Guardian has spoken to a heavily pregnant women who was recently granted bail and released from HMP Bronzefield. She is due to give birth in the next few days.
“I would not wish being pregnant in prison on my worst enemy,” she said. “I have never been so terrified of anything in my life as the prospect of having to give birth in prison.”
She said that she had had scares during her pregnancy when she started bleeding, but experienced delays in medical checks after summoning assistance.
She added that although she had been given a rape alarm, she had agreed with her mother – whom she was able to call from a phone in her cell – that she would ask her mother to call for an ambulance because she was terrified of having the same experience as Cleary.
The mother of another woman who is heavily pregnant and is still in HMP Bronzefield has made the same arrangement with her daughter for when she goes into labour.
“My daughter has been given a rape alarm but I said to her that, if nobody replies to her call, I’ll call 999 for ambulance and police. You can’t always hear those rape alarms and I’m scared that the same thing might happen to my daughter as happened to that poor girl Rianna Cleary,” she said.
Seyi Falodun-Liburd, a co-director of Level Up, which campaigns for an end to the imprisonment of pregnant women, said: “Prisons resorting to handing out rape alarms to pregnant women emphasises the total lack of confidence staff have in their ability to keep people safe. Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant.
“The Ministry of Justice, prison ombudsman and NHS agree that all pregnancies in prison pose a high-risk to the health of mother and child. Courts must prioritise community-based sentencing to ensure mothers are safe and can give their babies the best start in life.”
A spokesperson for HMP Bronzefield said: “There is no issue with cell bells at the prison. As part of our commitment to supporting pregnant women in our care we have provided personal alarms which they can carry with them at all times, providing them with an extra level of reassurance.”