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Pregnant Prisoners: Enduring Labor Behind Bars

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Gina Kaysen Fernandes: Incarcerated mothers are the most demonized women in our society. They are social pariahs, stigmatized for committing crimes that fuel the notion of "the bad mother." Every year, hundreds of women are sentenced to an even worse fate ... serving time as a pregnant prisoner. For many expectant mothers locked up in some state-run prisons, their experience is nothing short of torture.

Mandi and Gabriel (3 days old), 2008. (c) C. Hanna-Truscott

Pregnant women behind bars are typically deprived of prenatal care and adequate nutrition because prisons are not legally obligated to provide them. Medium and maximum-security prisons across the nation routinely use belly shackles to transport pregnant prisoners to other facilities or to the hospital. Once they go into labor, many of these women are chained to their hospital beds, even if they're undergoing a Cesarean section.

The United Nations has taken a stand against the practice, declaring the use of restraints during labor a human rights violation. The shackling of inmates in labor is also condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as an unnecessary risk to a woman's health. "I had shackles on up until the baby was coming out and then they took them off for me to push. It was unbelievable. Like I was going to go anywhere," stated Samantha Luther, who gave birth to a son in 2005 while incarcerated in Wisconsin.

"It's unthinkable in a civilized society," says Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a criminal justice advocacy group that's tracking and working to reform the treatment of mothers in prison. "There's no respect for the sacredness of pregnancy and giving birth," says Malika. Her organization fought to end routine shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons, but the practice is still widespread in most state-run facilities.

New York recently passed an anti-shackling law that bans restraints on inmates giving birth, except when needed to keep the woman from hurting herself, medical staff, or correctional officers. Illinois, California, Vermont, and New Mexico have similar laws on the books. In Texas, the law goes even further by banning the shackling of girls in state detention centers.

Opponents of anti-shackling efforts cite security concerns as justification for the restraints, arguing that inmates will use the pregnancy and birth as an opportunity to escape. "No one ever told me I was going to be shackled. I felt like I was an animal. I kept on thinking, where do they think I am going to run to?" stated Michelle, who was sentenced to 42 months at the Ohio Reformatory for Women for a probation violation linked to a larceny offense.

"It's absolutely inhumane. These are not hardened criminals," says Malika, who points out that most women and mothers who are in prison were convicted of non-violent drug offenses and suffer from substance abuse problems. The war on drugs and the introduction of mandatory sentencing caused the female prison population to balloon 432 percent over the past 25 years, according to a report by the Department of Justice. The DOJ's "Survey of State Prison Inmates" reports that six percent of women entered prison pregnant. Nearly half of the women in our nation's jails and prisons reported being physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment.

The most painful part of the birthing experience is not physical for these mothers. Rather, it's the emotional distress of not bonding with their newborns. The inmate gets 12 hours at most with her infant before the baby is passed on to a family member or the foster care system. A Polaroid photo may be the only memento she gets to keep of her child.

There are a fortunate few who have access to a more compassionate prison experience. Washington Corrections Center for Women, or WCCW, located in Gig Harbor, WA, houses mothers and their newborns in a unique Residential Parenting Program. The center is the only one of its kind in the nation that combines a childhood development program with residential living.

"For a lot of these moms, it's not their first pregnancy or first child, but their first time being a parent," says Jo Ader of the Puget Sound Educational Service Department. She works with the prison's infants and toddlers through the Early Head Start program. The goal is to stop the cycle of violence so these children won't follow in their mother's footsteps. "We give them tools to be better parents," says Katrina Avent, a unit supervisor at the facility. The mothers have access to college courses with the convenience of an on-site daycare. The center opened ten years ago to "create a loving environment in a clean and sober atmosphere," says Katrina.

It appears that the skills these mothers learn on the inside are helping them readjust to life in society after their release. The rate of recidivism is 43 percent for female prisoners at WCCW, but only 12 percent of the mothers in the Residential Parenting Program end up back behind bars. The Residential Parenting Program is limited to "model inmates" who have less than three years remaining on their sentence and have children under 30 months old. The residence currently houses 13 mothers and 14 babies, which includes a set of twins.

Another perk for pregnant women at the prison is access to a volunteer doula program. A non-profit group called The Birth Attendants offers monthly prenatal care, labor and delivery assistance, postpartum services, and family planning education courses.

The doula services are available to all pregnant inmates, as well as those in maximum security. "We're here to support people, whatever their choice is," says Zimryah Barnes, a program coordinator and volunteer doula. Zimryah says she has witnessed shackled inmates giving birth, and believes it's a huge hindrance to the birthing process. "Being able to know you have the freedom to move can affect labor. They lose their self-confidence and start to doubt themselves." The doulas assist with up to seven births a month at the tightly secured hospital that contracts with the prison. "I've never seen a case of a pregnant woman trying to escape during transport or labor and delivery," said Zimryah.

Pregnant prisoners are often emotionally damaged from violence, trauma, or drugs. Doulas like Zimryah offer kindness and unwavering support during one of life's most difficult experiences. "Just because somebody made a choice that led them to living a portion of their lives in prison doesn't make them any less of a human being."

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81 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jenny November 2, 2009, 4:42 AM

Okay it is complete crap that they are denied prenatal care, come on! That isn’t just for the mother but for the well being of the baby, the baby committed no crime and shouldn’t be punished!

Robin November 2, 2009, 4:49 AM

Jenny, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Kristen November 2, 2009, 6:22 AM

I’m appalled about 2 things, first is the lack of prenatal care/nutritious food. The 2nd thing is shackles while giving birth….your telling me that a guard or two stationed at the door is not enough to keep a women who is in LABOR from escaping, give me a freaking break. There is NO way a women could escape while in labor.

Anonymous November 2, 2009, 8:03 AM

If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Don’t get knocked up either.

Jenny November 2, 2009, 8:26 AM

I love how the people on here who write negative comments sign off 80% of the time as anonymous.

Sylvia November 2, 2009, 8:48 AM

Prison is supposed to be hard! Were these women thinking of their babies while committing crimes? Were they worried about the babies health while doing drugs? I don’t feel sorry for the convicted mothers as the article said most of them aren’t first time mothers, take some personal responsibilty.To Jenny Im not posting as anonymous or being negative- I just choose to look at the situation realisticly. What about the victims of these women who committed crimes? Are we as a society supposed to give a pass to women just because they get pregnant?

Calista November 2, 2009, 9:29 AM

I so agree I have NO SYMPATHY for them they should have realized this before going to jail I feel so sorry for these kids how embaressing….you were born oh in prison.These woman should be steralized before they get out so they can’t have any more children and give me a break they do deserve the most uncomftorable labour and delivery they don’t deserve comfort…how embaressing for those children.They need to get a life and get with it they shoulden’t get bonding time with the babys they don’t deserve.

Pamala November 2, 2009, 9:34 AM

I just think it’s unfair to punish the baby and withhold prenatal care. Frankly the fact that children are living in prison with mothers, that makes no sense to me. I think the mothers should be given care so that they birth healthy babies and then the babies be either put in foster care or put with the family on the outside. Prison is punishment, plain and simple, and frankly it’s not a place for a baby at all.

Jenny November 2, 2009, 9:35 AM

It doesn’t matter if the mother wasn’t thinking of her baby, don’t you understand that its not about the mother, its about the BABY. This is an innocent life that didn’t ask to be brought into the world and hasn’t done anything wrong. I don’t think these mothers should get anything extra other than prenatal care for the BABY and proper nutrition for the BABY.

I just don’t understand how you can think it is okay to deny a baby proper nutrition and medical care.

Del November 2, 2009, 10:31 AM

I have known one person who went trhought this. It was hard for them. Life is unfair and sucks many times. This is a sad story, because the underlying causes are ALWAYS overlooked. What about trying to keep these people off the drugs that got them sent to prison.

Its only when drugs start really effecting middle and higher classes (many teens in these groups use drugs, but they have strong supporting family to pay and try to keep them off), that our society would start to care about others and their drug problems…atleast it seems that way.

Kendra November 2, 2009, 10:50 AM

I believe that the women not the baby should be punished! Prenatal care should be provided, the expectant mothers should have proper nutrition and prenatal vitamins and healthcare provided, this benefits the unborn not the criminal mother! With that said I do not belive the babies should be housed with the mothers after birth! The babies did not commit a crime they should not have to suffer imprisonment because their mothers are criminals. These mothers do not deserve to have the luxury of having their children with them, that is one thing that you loose when you enter prison! Along with freedom you loose the right to be a parent, obviously these women are not good parents and they do not desreve these children! Do what is best for the baby and punish the mother! If you can’t do the time do not do the crime! These mothers deserve to loose everything including their children when they decide to break the law! They should be shackled and restrained while they are visiting doctors and medical facilitys! They should have thought about these things before they broke the law! I do not feel sorry for them!

Heidi November 2, 2009, 10:51 AM

I had no idea that these women were shackled during labor; that is just idiotic. Seriously, where are ya gonna freakin’ go while you’re in labor? And they definitely should change whatever laws necessary for these women to get prenatal care. Yeah, they committed crimes, and they should do the time, don’t get me wrong, but that is just inhumane to the unborn child to deprive the mother of prenatal care.

Timothy Kelley November 2, 2009, 12:32 PM

If we knew better, we’d do better. Education is always the key to these social ills. It goes beyond prison and into mainstream America. Just educating moms about everything during and after pregnancy is a monumental task with all of the ‘bad’ information out there. We’ll keep trying to what we can!

TIm Kelley
The Baby CD

Rachel November 2, 2009, 1:56 PM

Did some of you people actually read AND comprehend the article? It seems the goal of these programs where the baby stays with mom is to teach these mothers parenting skills. These aren’t hardened criminals, according to the article, but people who committed nonviolent crimes. Why would we *not* want to educate them and provide resources to them so they can have the knowledge and power to become good parents? NEWSFLASH - babies don’t come with instruction manuals (although some of you seem to imply that). That’s right - it makes FAR more sense to treat them like animals, deny them a comfortable birth experience, “steralize” them (@Calista, I’m far more “embaressed” for you and your spelling skills than for a child who is born in a prison). Get a grip, people!

Lea November 2, 2009, 2:04 PM

To all of you who are disturbed, what kind of prenatal care do you think a drug addicted mother would seek on the streets? Do you really think this person who’s out committing crimes is also at home eating nutrious meals for her unborn baby? NO, I truly doubt a pregnant drug addict is seeking care and eating right anyway so it seems that the prison system might actually give the child a somewhat healthier start in life by keeping the mother off drugs and away from high risk behaviors. As far as the shackles, medical personnel who treat prisoners deserve to be protected because not all of these women are non violent offenders.

tennmom November 2, 2009, 2:15 PM

For a lot of these moms, it’s not their first pregnancy or first child, but their first time being a parent,”
If a woman had a previous child/children she wasn’t parenting, what the hell made her think she should get pregnant again?
No child should be stuck with a criminal parent. Oops, I “accidentally” committed a crime and ended up in jail?
Face it, some people are not fit to reproduce.

Jenny November 2, 2009, 2:37 PM


No many of these women would not be getting prenatal care and eating well and that poor child would suffer for it. If we have these women behind bars where nutritious eating and prenatal care can be imposed and we choose not to then we are just as guilty .

Lea November 2, 2009, 2:58 PM

Sorry Jenny Im not guilty nor am I obligated to provided convicted criminals a better way of life. Our prison system is overwrought with people who think they “deserve” something better. If we start prenatal raise your babies in jail programs where is the incentive to not commit crime, have a job and provide for yourselves?

Rachel November 2, 2009, 3:25 PM

@ Lea, I *highly* doubt people will be clamoring for spots in the prenatal prison program. Regardless of the circumstance, THE CHILD did not ask to be brought into the world. Just because Mom is in trouble with the law doesn’t mean we should withold prenatal care. Prenatal care exhists primarily to enable healthy, positive outcomes for the baby. If a side effect is getting Mom off crack (as an example) and giving her the skills and resources to better herself as a parent, are you telling me this is bad? Really?

Jenny November 2, 2009, 3:40 PM

Lea if you had read my previous comments you would see that I am not in favor of halfway homes but I am in favor of prenatal care and nutrition for an unborn baby who had no say in coming into this world or their mother’s crime. Also, if these kids don’t get prenatal care then some of them may come out with major health issues that might have been dealt with before and since their mothers have no health insurance so the government will end up footing the bill anyway.

The mother is the criminal NOT the baby.

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