Janey Starling is co-director of gender justice organisation Level Up. Through her work with Level Up, Janey has worked to transform the way that UK media outlets report on domestic abuse deaths and spearheaded a groundbreaking campaign to stop the imprisonment of pregnant women.

What inspired your campaign to end the imprisonment of pregnant women?

The campaign launched when two babies died in women’s prisons. In 2019, Aisha Cleary died at Bronzefield prison in Surrey when her mum, Rianna, went into labour in her prison cell in the night and her calls for help were ignored so she was left to give birth without medical assistance. A matter of months later, in a different prison up north, HMP Styal, a woman named Louise Powell went into labour on a prison toilet and had a stillborn baby, Brooke Powell. When these two baby deaths hit the press, I was first of all disgusted that we lock up pregnant women in prison in the first place. But also, I was shocked that some of the responses to these deaths were professionals calling for improved healthcare for women in prison, when to me, it seemed obvious that the answer was to stop imprisoning pregnant women. 

Level Up launched a campaign that shifted the narrative away from healthcare reform inside prison and made an explicit call to end the imprisonment of pregnant women, no ifs or buts. People are not just imprisoned on sentence, a third of pregnant women in prison are there awaiting their trial or sentencing and most do not even go on to receive a custodial sentence. 

Ultimately, I am motivated to end violence against women. The imprisonment of pregnant women, and the imprisonment of women more broadly, is a cruel form of state violence. It’s also a violation of women’s reproductive justice, which is the right to have, or not have, children and parent those children in conditions that are safe and healthy. Imprisonment is a direct assault to reproductive justice.

Level Up has worked to shift the discourse away from reform towards ending the imprisonment of pregnant women altogether. How have you gone about that?

With a strong, clear messaging framework and media strategy. The rule of good campaign messaging is that you need to keep it simple and keep repeating it. You have to repeat yourself for around three years for it to set in, and it’s usually when you’re absolutely sick of repeating it that the public finally starts to catch on. Our two core messages were:

  1. Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant
  2. The government needs to end the imprisonment of pregnant women.

Criminal justice issues are notoriously difficult to campaign on. They are politicised and stigmatised. We circumvented that stigma by centring the bond between mother and baby. Pregnancy and nurturing a baby is a very emotive and relatable experience for many people, so we built a media-driven campaign that engaged people around this. We researched and prepared the campaign strategy for almost a year before we launched it – Level Up consulted with expert midwives like Dr Laura Abbott, and academics and charities that have worked with women in prison like Birth Companions and Women In Prison, and of course women who had experienced imprisonment themselves, to make sure we had a comms framework that a lot of people could get behind.

We media trained a number of women who were pregnant in prison and willing to anonymously share their story. Initially, we used the government reports around the two baby deaths as hooks to pitch more in-depth stories about women’s experiences of pregnancy in prison to the press. The Aisha Cleary inquest also attracted a lot of media attention, which kept the issue in the public eye. Level Up also created news stories to keep the momentum going, including by sourcing FOI data that revealed that the stillbirth rate for women in prison is seven times higher than the general population and that women in prison are twice as likely to give birth prematurely. The repeated media stories created consistency and empathy, and reinforced our two core campaign messages. 

Another huge component of our comms strategy has been the protest movement No Births Behind Bars. They’re a group of mothers and babies who reached out to Level Up around one year into the campaign because they wanted to find a way to get involved. No Births Behind Bars have held Mother’s Day protests, done breastfeeding protests outside the Ministry of Justice, demonstrated outside the Royal Courts of Justice, outside prisons, and Parliament – and the media love it because who doesn’t love cute little babies holding mini placards? The visuals of the baby protests have successfully shown the public do not want pregnant women, mothers and babies in prison, and we’ve sourced polling that shows this too. And of course, every time a newspaper reports on the issue they have to ask the Ministry of Justice or Sentencing Council for a comment, so they can see there is ongoing public and media interest. 

(Photo credit: Elizabeth Dalziel)

Solidarity has played a big role in the campaign to end the imprisonment of pregnant women. Can you tell us how Level Up has built a coalition to make change?

My background is in grassroots feminist direct action and trade union organising, which have really shaped my approach to campaigns. Direct action is about being bold and interrupting systems of power. Trade union organising is about building a critical mass of support that tips the balance. Power is something that is built collectively and there are no shortcuts to doing that. This has meant lots of meetings, phone calls and trust building with a constellation of brilliant women who experienced pregnancy in prison, academics, lawyers, judges, midwives, charity professionals and of course journalists. Lots of people deeply care about this issue and want to see a change, and everyone plays a crucial part. Having a network of people from different professions and political positionalities who can use their influence to contribute to a bigger strategy is important. And it ensures the same message is coming from all angles and most importantly, that message is being both heard and reinforced by the public. 

How did you go about lobbying the Sentencing Council to make these changes?

In 2022, we published an open letter to the Sentencing Council and Ministry of Justice that strategically centred health voices like the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine. We got over 90 signatories, including lots of lawyers too. We prioritised health voices because in campaigning, the messenger is part of the message, and knew that a group of judges were more likely to listen to midwives than feminist campaigners, not to say that midwives aren’t feminist campaigners! But health professionals are perceived as apolitical figures and experts in their field and it was important to position our campaign calls as rooted in evidence and endorsed by health experts, who knew far more about pregnant women’s needs than judges. It was also critical to demonstrate that health experts were calling for a new sentencing framework, not prison reform. It was a line in the sand.

We asked the Sentencing Council to open a dialogue with us to introduce a new sentencing framework for pregnant women and they did. In the background, the media campaign and the baby protests continued to show that the issue was salient. Within the space of a few years, the Sentencing Council have set about reforming sentencing policy for pregnant women: we now have pregnancy as a mitigating factor in courts and by collectively coordinating responses to their consultation, we’ve managed to shift their original proposals significantly – from something quite minimal and vague to something very detailed and comprehensive.

We’re still waiting on the results of another Sentencing Council consultation, but in the meantime, we’re affecting change in real time in the courts by actively appealing women’s sentences. Women who have seen Level Up on TV have approached us to say, “my daughter’s pregnant in prison, can you help get her out?”. So we’ve introduced them to lawyers who are involved in the campaign and so far this has led to two pregnant women being released from prison, both of whom were able to safely give birth to their babies and raise them surrounded by family instead of prison officers. One of these was a woman serving a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for firearms possession, who had a very high-risk pregnancy. The lawyers managed to get her sentence completely overturned, which was incredible for her and has also contributed to case law that will help pregnant women in future. 

Interventions like these are critical to changing women’s lives and are key to influencing the Sentencing Council because we’re able to demonstrate that a sea change is taking place in the courts and their guidance has to reflect that. We’ve made very detailed and persuasive policy submissions to them, but building case law is a powerful tactic that has now grown to be a key part of our campaign. 

(Photo credit: Alex Janaszewski)

Can you tell us about the opposition you faced and how you overcame it?

We haven’t had substantive opposition from an organised or funded lobby, in the way that we have when we’ve campaigned to decriminalise abortion or for trans rights. The most we’ve had to grapple with are presenters on LBC asking, “Well, what if women get pregnant to avoid prison?” and the answer to that is: we can speculate about hypothetical situations or acknowledge the reality that two babies have died in prison, that it will fundamentally never be safe, and we need to end imprisonment of pregnant women.

Another strange form of opposition we’ve come across is where people dispute the evidence that prison is a high-risk environment for pregnant women. Both the NHS and Ministry of Justice acknowledge this, so it’s wild when people try to deny it. When the Sentencing Council issued their first consultation on pregnancy as a mitigating factor, they shared the results of a focus group of judges and magistrates who had expressed their doubts about the risk that pregnant women face in prison, in spite of the fact two babies have died and in spite of the published stillbirth statistics. It was enraging but it gave us the resolve to organise militantly behind the scenes to present a bullet-proof defence against such irresponsible speculation.

Once on a TV debate, I spoke about the NHS data on baby deaths and the fact that the stillbirth rate is seven times higher for women in prison, and Ann Widdecombe just straight up refuted it. We live in a political landscape where reactionary demagogues openly tell lies and it’s infuriating, but it has also affirmed our approach that has focussed heavily on messaging, narrative and communications. We know that evidence alone doesn’t change policy or win power, strategic communications do – and that’s what we excel at.

What has your campaign to end the imprisonment of pregnant women taught you about how to achieve change? 

Be agile. You need to have a really solid strategy and a roadmap that you commit to, which requires repetition to the point of nausea, but also ready to respond to new opportunities and collaborations. Change isn’t something you “call for” once and then gets gifted to you by the powers that be. You have to keep hammering on from all angles, and hammering on collectively with lots of other people. 

I’ve also learned a lot about courage and steadfastness from the women who experienced their pregnancies in prison, especially Louise and Rianna whose babies died, who’ve had to go through gruelling legal proceedings to seek justice. They are both involved in the campaign because they want to prevent this from happening in future, and I feel a sense of accountability toward them both to keep driving proper change to the system. 

Level Up works to secure gender justice in the UK. With an election on the horizon, what changes do you think an incoming government could make to make that happen?

End the imprisonment of pregnant women and decriminalise abortion, two essential reproductive justice issues.

Are there any other campaigns in the criminal justice space that have inspired you?

JENGbA are amazing. They’re campaigning to overturn joint enterprise laws, which are absolutely horrendous miscarriages of justice. I also admire a woman called Shirley De Bono, who has been leading the campaign to overhaul IPP sentencing on behalf of her son. I think those two campaigns are brilliant – and, again, driven by mums. The political power of mothers is going to bring the prison system to the ground. They’re grassroots campaigners who are not tied up in charity laws or service contracts. They are fighting on behalf of their children who are trapped in prison. They command a lot of respect because of the dignity and clarity they campaign with.

What’s next for you, Janey?

On the campaign front, we’re going to focus on bail processes. 

For me personally? I’m focused on bench pressing my bodyweight. When I’m not campaigning on prisons, I’m powerlifting!

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