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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
tennmom November 2, 2009, 7:26 PM

Like Lea, I feel no guilt for any criminal feeling entitled to the best of care available without contributing a dime. Want the best care available? Don’t break the law and end up in jail. I’ve managed to live for almost 42 years without it happening to me. It’s not that hard.
Another sad fact: children of criminals often grow up to be…yep, criminals. So great, now there’s a new generation of criminals for my children to be expected to support with their tax dollars, along with the children these criminals will produce who will grow up to be criminals.
Children of inmates should never be subjected to being raised by these sad excuses for mothers. Ater all, “it’s not the BABY’S fault”.

Renae  November 2, 2009, 8:09 PM

Amen tennmom. My thoughts exactly.

Theo November 2, 2009, 8:47 PM

Let’s befor real in this day and age to not give an inmate prenatal is the same as them winning the lotery when they sue and they do. They made a choice and they have to deal with the consequences like anyone else. If it was you or your love one who was the victim most of you would care less if she was shackled or not. Further more they’re only shackled due to their security level which is based on their crime. I won’t even mention that some get pregnant thinking it would lessen the amount time they get at sentencing.

Miranda November 2, 2009, 8:49 PM

Fun Fact: The actress Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) was actually born to a mother who was convicted at the time of her birth. Her mother was sentenced to a year in prison for being involved in a marijuana cartel. She gave birth at six months into the sentence and was sent to a halfway house for another six months so she could breastfeed, returning the child to her grandmother and finishing her sentence after Meester was weaned.
A lot of women giving birth in prisons aren’t violent criminals but ones who fall onto unfortunate circumstances (drugs, prostitution, etc.) I know many like to believe that people are given the tools to be able not to commit crimes, but it is not so easy to escape a life of crime and/or poverty.

GPC November 2, 2009, 9:06 PM

Well, maybe they should have thought of their children before they did whatever caused them to go to jail. I’m with the fact that jailed pregnant ladies should get prenatal care but they shouldn’t have done whatever it is they went to jail for. If they were really all that concerned maybe they wouldn’t have done something illegal before they had the baby. Unfortunately, like a lot of things in life, others suffer for what we ourselves have done. They have themselves to blame, not anyone else.

LuAnn November 3, 2009, 3:38 AM

This reminds me of stories from concentration camps when women’s legs were bound together during childbirth, to kill off both mother and child.

Sure, the mothers in this situation have committed crimes, and surely they must “pay their debt” to society…but what crime have the babies committed? If they are not guilty of crimes themselves, it is inhumane to punish them for it.

This is no different (well…) from any other medical condition suffered by any prisoner (male or female), where medical services are provided for and paid for by the state.

Definitely NOT what I expected from an ‘enlightened’ (nah, scratch that), er…’civilized’ (nah, that one’s gotta go too)….er….American society.

Lisa November 3, 2009, 4:25 AM

So what if they write anonymous?? If they write their name then what?? Half the people that even put a name on a comment probably isnt even their real name anyway…. its the internet for gods sake….grow up! Goes to show the mentality these days….

Paula November 3, 2009, 4:56 AM

First prenatal care is a must! Punish mom not baby. Secondly you will see no sympathy from me either. Just because these women have sex and get pregnant does not make them above the law. I would not want to endure what they are going through. That is why I don’t break the law. I have had a hard life, but I chose to rise above what happened to me and make my life better.

Osha November 3, 2009, 5:10 AM

It is supposed to be hard but not as far as the care they need. The same care that will keep the child healthy and safe!!!!!!!!

Anonymous November 3, 2009, 5:36 AM

as a retired correction officer i can attest to the fact that being incarcerated while expecting can be additionally stressful for the mom- that being said i can also attest that female inmates are a totally diff’t “animal” ( i do not mean it in the literal sense, these are human beings not animals, nor should they be treated as such)because of their specials needs as a women and a pregnant one at that they are treated w/ kid gloves- and that’s under normal circumstances, even w/o a prenancy involved & because they are prisoners probably have more rights than you and i tax paying citizens. also there are safety procedures in place meant to secure EVERYONE INVOLVED. the idea that ‘their not going anywhere’ might be logical but if an opportunity arose would it be possible? and that is what a security conscience law enforcement org. should be considering. so i think they should remain as they are. jail in itself is not a pleasant experience- so it should’nt be made into a “country club” setting. and anything nicer than the norm to them will be considered “country club” so i’m not talking fancy i just mean more relaxed. and as long as mom & baby are medically cared for- that is what is important-that’s not being medival.

Jill November 3, 2009, 5:44 AM

My SIL is currently incarcerated and pregnant. She is in MN and is getting prenatal care and nutritional meals/snacks. They bring her to the prison OB as well as an outside OB dr. office. She will not be shackled to the bed but will have guards and not be allowed visitors. She can’t even call us when she goes into labor, we have to rely on her roommate in prison to call us. My husband and I will be taking the baby while she finishes her sentence and completes a treatment program. I understand that every facility and state are different but I know MN is one state that is different.
*And I do understand the point of not doing the crime if you can’t do the time, but these babies didn’t ask to be here and they are helpless. I can’t speak for all but as for my SIL her baby is getting the care it needs.

Jerri November 3, 2009, 5:59 AM

Half of you people posting are very ignorant to the fact that these women have been abused, have substance abuse issues, etc. Try going thru a tramatic experience, like being beaten and raped, then try to continue living a normal life. Gee, get off your high horses and look at the situation from all around. Take a class educating yourself about public problems then sit here and write all you want about how a women suffering from domestic violence should “just leave him,” or a drug addict to “just quit”. Yeah, not that easy and so only speak if you know where they are coming from. Like the article says most committed “non-violent” crimes so their treatment is uncalled for. There are murderers out there in the prison system who get better treatment. Gee!

Ane November 3, 2009, 11:14 AM

I can’t believe this can happen in American, even if the mothers committed various crimes, their children deserve the right to have the best care starting from the womb! Even the supposed terrorists that were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay get health care treatment that is better than this! It’s just Ludicrous!

Ane November 3, 2009, 11:17 AM

If more women were in charge of the Prison systems things would be much different!

renee November 3, 2009, 1:48 PM

i dont think that they should be shackled but i do not feel sorry for them as the are criminals and should not get anything other than basic prental care in prison. just as i believe they shouldnt get cable,college degrees or anything else other than 3 hots and a cot.

John November 3, 2009, 3:13 PM

Very disturbing article, in that it so poorly researched and written. Obviously, the author seems to be asking the unstated question, “Where is the sympathy for these women?”

Well, there is none. These women have made the choice to place themselves outside of society. Most are manipulators who look at prison as free healthcare, and will continue to their criminal lifestyle when they get out.

Let’s stop coddling these criminals, while, at the same time, give the children born in prison to caring homes with competent parents. That will be the only chance at a decent life for them.

Allison November 3, 2009, 5:00 PM

I’m sorry, but if you are pregnant, you should not be doing anything illegal that would put you in jail. Sorry to hear that the conditions are bad, but next time, don’t be a dirt bag that ends up in jail.

Sparkie8 November 3, 2009, 5:18 PM

You idiots believe this story. Women behind bars get medical treatment. Prenantal care is a top priority in every female prison. If you don’t want to be pregnant in prison:don’t commit crimes…. idiots.

kim November 3, 2009, 9:24 PM

Lea, I realize that most people dont have any sympathy for prisoners and I know from personal experience that prisoners are not asking for special care. But the laws state that a prisoner is entitled to the same care they would receive on the outside.

I was in prison for writing a bad check, while there I had a massive heart attack at 38 years old. I only had to do 4 months but I will tell you no one got me help for hours. If I would have received the help I needed I would not have had to have my heart restarted 3 times.

I watched women die because the simplist care was not done. Pregnant women do get care but like you alot of people feel prisoners deserve nothing.

What about the women or men who are in for stupid non violent mistakes. I feel no one should have to die for writing a bad check, or having a drug addiction. Everyone deserves care no matter what the situation. If you are incarcerating someone and they are not sentenced to death than they deserve to leave that prison the same way they went in. Three quarter of the people in the prison system do 6 months or less because the prisons make money for every person there, most of these people could do probation or rehab programs but it is not as lucrative for the states to do that.

I hope that people will look at all the facts and have compassion and forgiveness.

Mandy November 3, 2009, 9:24 PM

Kudos to Rachel who is sooooo right in all of her post. I too think it is absurd to make any woman give birth in shackles, give me a break, like several have said, where the heck is she going to go while in labor, or able to go any where, geez! That is is just plain cruel, and if we treated animals like that we would be arrested for cruelty to animals. 90% of women in jail are there for non-violent crimes.

I think having the program like Washington state does with the housing of the children up to 30 months old in a “house-like” facility with their mothers, with courses offered to help them better themselves and those to teach them to be a better mother and citizen is great! I mean if the prisoners don’t get reformed, and come out a better person, what does that say for us as a society. If they can turn these people around, that is better for everyone, including us.

For those that say, well if they can’t deal with the way prison is, they shouldn’t have done the crime, that’s BS. Statistics state 1/3 of those in prison are innocent of the charges they were convicted for, but found guilty at trial. And many of those that were convicted of a crime are those that are there on a drug charge, and not necessarily them doing drugs but their boyfriend or spouse was the one committing the crime and they just happened to be with the person dealing drugs or had possesion of drugs. Some are even there for writing bad checks, perhaps they lost their job and was desperate to feed their family. So that being said, to treat these women to the barbaric practices of shackling them during labor is totally unacceptable to us as human beings. And not giving prenatal care should be a crime, remember it’s the baby that suffers.

Also, talking about the Washington prison program, I think it’s great having the babies there with the mothers in a home-like setting is great because, if those mothers don’t bond with their babies when they are very young, those children are going to grow up with all kind of problems due to not bonding and being close to their mothers. The lack of bonding is only going to cause the mothers to be emotionally detached from their children when they do get out, which could lead to child abuse due to the lack of bonding early. Do we really want to create more criminals or reform the ones we have to become successfull when they do get out.

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