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A watchdog’s investigation has found Louise Powell, 31, went through a “terrifying, painful and traumatic experience” at HMP Styal in Cheshire after a prison nurse mistook her labour for period pain. The case is being described as an example of the “catastrophic failure of healthcare in prisons”.
Prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) Sue McAllister said staff made a “serious error of judgment” when they did not visit or properly assess Ms Powell after she started bleeding and reported being in pain.
Medical professionals were called three times over two hours as concerns over Ms Powell’s condition grew among staff.
The duty nurse eventually “concluded incorrectly that she was bleeding and suffering severe stomach pain as a result of a painful period”.
Ms Powell did not know she was pregnant and did not believe she could be.
She is a lesbian and did not recall having penetrative sex.
She was behind bars on an eight-month sentence after admitting common assault, criminal damage and using threatening words or behaviour.
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.”
It is thought the baby was born at between 27 and 31 weeks, in June 2020.
Fellow inmates and staff said they had “no suspicion” of pregnancy until the baby girl was born prematurely.
The tragic incident has been described in the watchdog’s report as “deeply sad and distressing”.
Published on Tuesday, it states: “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.”
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Kate Paradine, chief executive of the charity Women in Prison, dubbed the findings “another example of a catastrophic failure of healthcare in prisons”, which she claimed “are not safe for women”.
Ms McAllister is unable to determine whether the baby could have survived if her mother had been taken to hospital, and the report added: “We consider that this would need to be determined by a court on the basis of expert evidence commissioned for that purpose.”
The PPO said prison staff did not miss any “obvious signs” Ms Powell was pregnant during the three-and-a-half months she had been jailed. However, there were “missed opportunities” to identify she needed urgent clinical attention in the hours before she gave birth.
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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.”
A spokeswoman for Spectrum Community Health CIC, which runs healthcare services at the prison on behalf of the NHS and Public Health, 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”.
The not-for-profit social enterprise accepts the findings of the report.
The NHS said it had taken “prompt action” so “pregnancy tests are offered to all women when they arrive in prison”.
It added that jail staff are being trained to detect the early signs of labour and “know what to do in the event of an unexpected birth”.
These, among many others, are measures recommended in the just-released report.
In a Newsnight interview last year, Ms Powell said: “I don’t blame anyone for not knowing I was pregnant, because I didn’t at the time.
“But the fact that nobody came over to look at me, the fact that nobody took me over to see any healthcare… acute abdominal pain could have been anything.
“To me, I remember saying to them I think I’m dying, I need an ambulance. So I feel like a lot more could have been done.”
Her solicitor, Jane Ryan, added: “And it’s also a matter of public concern that, yet again, this has happened.”
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