Mother in chains to sue

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The pregnant Holloway prisoner shackled during stages of her labour is to sue Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, for negligence and lack of care, in an attempt to outlaw the controversial policy.

The woman, known only as Annette, is determined to take the case all the way to the European Courts if necessary. With the support of a wide range of maternity and civil rights groups who say the practice endangers mothers and their babies, she will allege Mr Howard breached article 3 of the Convention on Human Rights, and subjected her to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

Annette, serving a sentence for theft, was one of several women at Holloway prison who have been shackled and chained during hospital visits. Some are said to have been chained to male officers during ante-natal checks, and others - like Annette - in the early stages of, and immediately after, labour.

Yesterday, it was alleged that at least three other women, all seriously ill, had been shackled when they went to hospital for treatment. They included a women receiving chemotherapy for cancer, a woman suffering pneumonia and another with dysentery.

The practice of handcuffing and chaining everybody - regardless of the severity of their offence or the risk of escape - has been defended by Anne Widdecombe, the Prisons Minister, in the Commons, and by Mr Howard yesterday.

Beverley Lawrence-Beech, of the Association of Improvement of Maternity Services, which is supporting Annette's case, yesterday described the policy, which has meant women are chained in front of their children and at care and custody hearings as "barbaric".

The policy was introduced in April last year, following the escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor top security jails of dangerous men, including IRA terrorists. Until then, most women prisoners - who rarely make escape attempts - had not been subjected to handcuffing and chaining.

According to Chris Tchai-kovsky, director of Women in Prison, the policy has led to women refusing to attend family funerals, because they did not want to be seen in chains, and one woman near the end of her sentence stopping visits to her 90-year-old mother because of the shame of wearing chains.