Home Affairs Correspondent
Ministers have rejected hospital proposals which would have ended the controversial practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners to prevent escapes.
Medical staff had offered to take midwifery services into Holloway prison, north London, rather than force the mothers-to-be to wear chains when they attended Whittington hospital for ante-natal care.
But yesterday Anne Widdecombe, prisons minister, defended the shackling policy, which has caused a furore since prison inspectors walked out of Holloway prison in disgust at "over-zealous" security and appalling conditions. She said it was better for the women to attend hospital.
Ms Widdecombe told the Commons shackles were necessary to prevent prisoners from escaping. "Some MPs may like to think that a pregnant woman would not or could not escape. Unfortunately this is not true.
"The fact is that hospitals are not secure places in which to keep prisoners, and since 1990, 20 women have escaped from hospitals".
Secretly filmed footage, broadcast on Channel 4 last week, showed a Holloway prisoner, named only as Annette, shackled to warders only an hour after giving birth. Witnesses said she had been restrained when she was having contractions.
Ms Widdecombe said it was not policy to restrain women during labour and claimed that in Annette's case, once full labour had been established, she had not been shackled.
"The Prison Service has a duty of care to the mother, but this must be balanced against the needs of the service to keep all prisoners, including pregnant women prisoners, in secure custody," she said.
Jack Straw, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said it was "degrading and unnecessary" for a woman to be shackled at any stage of labour. He said that no prisoner in labour had ever escaped.