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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
hukee November 4, 2009, 8:17 AM

Most of these women are incarcerated for NON VIOLENT crimes and most have a history of physical and sexual abuse.
It is extremely ignorant to say that pregnant women in prison should be sterilized, shackled, treated like animals. So many women in prison have been treated like animals their whole lives, starting in childhood. What needs to change? There are abuse cycles that we as a society do nothing about and then blame the offender who was once the victim. It is the brain washed robots who respond to this article with hatred, forgetting about compassion that was once a part of female intuition. These responses are violent and ingrained in patriarchal thinking - absent of feeling.
It is always time for increased public awareness around violent systems. It is always time for change. Thank you for the article!

Tara Proctor November 4, 2009, 2:13 PM

I hate to break it to you, but they receive medical care while in prison as well as extra food/drinks. And for someone to say, poor them, they are only in prison for non-violent drug offenses…. um no. I consider it violent that they continue to use drugs up until arrest and harm the fetus. Of course restraints are needed during transport and labor… they are criminals on furlough from the jail. Sounds like this author is more willing to hug a thug than listen to the other side of the equation.

John November 4, 2009, 3:54 PM

“Statistics state 1/3 of those in prison are innocent of the charges they were convicted for, but found guilty at trial.”

Care to post a link to these stats, Mandy?

SoCal PP Doula November 5, 2009, 8:12 AM

Is this how we want a baby to enter the world? The mama is going to pay her debt to society when she goes back to prison, but can’t we as a society give her dignity in birth? Let’s think about the baby’s perspective for a change! Geez-o people, how can being unshackled while giving birth harm society? A gentle birth and good enviroment for birthing should be considered for the baby at the very least.

Paul November 5, 2009, 8:23 PM

Guess what if they don’t like the conditions in jail DONT BREAK THE LAW AND GET ARRESTED!!!

Ileana November 5, 2009, 11:16 PM

I can not believe I find myself subscribed to a website that dares to post such an infuriating article! I have worked in the county jail system and have witnessed women turning themselves in on warrants PURPOSELY in order to have the COUNTY pay for the delivery. I do not feel sorry for these women! I have had four children and somehow managed to navigate thru this world without landing myself in jail. If you want all the creature comforts of comfy beds, prenatal care, and shackle-free labor, STAY OUT OF JAIL. The only ones to feel bad for are these poor babies. Due to security issues, the babies can not remain with the mother and have to be picked up by a relative or child services. These babies do not ask to come into the world and they are the only innocents in this situation. Shame on Momlogic for painting these women as the poor little victims of the “torturous” prison system.


Lucia November 5, 2009, 11:29 PM

Interesting comments - I am not a fence-rider, but I do agree with how many of you on both sides of the issue feel! Yeah personal responsibility is necessary and overlooked in our society by some. AND Human Rights are supposed to be granted by our society which often thinks of itself as the most fair place, treating people with equality and justice. We look down upon other nations who treat prisoners inhumanely. Me personally giving birth, I needed to be pacing and squatting and standing. I can’t imagine going through it in shackles, it is painful and hard enough as it is… and to leave a woman in labor in shackles is INHUMANE. period.

The baby? Poor little thing. Needs to be given the best home possible as sson as possible. It is not the baby’s fault that its mother chose to commit crimes.

Alisha November 6, 2009, 9:17 AM

Ok..This is getting ridiculous. Why were these women in prison in the first place? Exactly. What happened to “when you go to jail you give up your rights as a citizen” you can’t rob or murder and expect all the rights of a law abiding citizen just because you are knocked up. yes, absolutely it sucks for the child but it is not any better for the child to grow up with a mother who does not recognize rules. I am so sick of america and all of its entitlement issues. we have rights beyond any others living on earth and we still complain and want more….more hand outs please…i dont want to work to make myself or the world better…i want it given to me…because it is owed to me?!?! wtf? people! NOTHING absolutely NOTHING on this earth is owed to you…period. and why are we crying about this all the while supporting women having abortions? Geeze yank that baby away from that woman as fast as you can and give it to someone who will love it and teach it right from wrong and leave that dead beat mother in prison.

Allie November 6, 2009, 10:09 AM

Yeah, I agree the baby shouldn’t be punished, but clearly the mother doesn’t care about her child or she wouldn’t be in jail. There isn’t much people can do about this, if your in prison, your in prison. You deserve to be there obviously and although your baby doesn’t, maybe it is a good wake up call to the mothers who decided to do something to end up there.

Allie November 6, 2009, 10:17 AM

Lucia, I disagree. Yeah giving birth is hard.. whatever. They deserve to be in jail. Give the BABY the care it needs. Forget the mother who doesn’t deserve a easy birth. The mother in this case is a human but CHOOSE to be in that situation so there fore, I could careless if a person rots and is miserable in prison. Anyone who has kids or is pregnant and goes to prison, doesn’t deserve a thing. Take the baby out of her hands and give it to a loving person who will actually care for it.

Hannah November 6, 2009, 2:13 PM

I am very impressed with this article and with the people who are supporting, mentoring, stabilizing and providing opportunities for women in prison. Thank you, you do important, invaluable and good work!

Pregnant women in prison deserve their basic human rights, and being shackled during pregnancy does not seem like my idea of compling with basic human rights. Let us not forget that the quality of a birth greatly affects a baby, and these children deserve to birthed in loving and positive ways and deserve to be able to connect and be nourished by thier mothers. Especially if the mother is going to be released soon. The parent child bond is essential in early childhood development!

The program at the Gig Harbor prison is paramount for its capacity to transform these women lives. It equips these mothers with the tools they need to get over their own past negative experiences and allows them to learn how to create stable and healthy environments for their children to grow and strive. I want for all mothers and fathers to have the opportunity to learn how to be good parents. This will decrees the dependence to the state in the long run.

Also, I find it ridiculous to condemn only the women for their crimes. What about the long term effects of systemic racism that have continued to oppress people and deny them of opportunity. This system that we live in creates the criminals and continues to make money off incarceration rather than rehabilitation. Spending money on rehabilitation greatly reduces the levels of recidivism.

To all the people who have written comments to this article that further condemn these women- YOU ARE IGNORANT BEYOND BELIEF!!!! Who are you to judge?

khg November 6, 2009, 4:01 PM

I’m sorry but I’m really dumb so I need someone to explain it to me.

Why are we spending tax dollars on different ways of locking up pregnant drug-addicts and abuse victims instead of using that money to lock up rapists, murderers, and gangsters?

I for one am not afraid that I’m going to get attacked by a pregnant female criminal but I AM afraid of the latter group.

In my short life thus far, I don’t recall ever reading about a pregnant woman, or a non-pregnant woman for that matter, going around breaking into homes, kidnapping little kids and raping them for years while the cops fail to save the victims. The money used on petty criminals should be used to hire more cops to monitor the likes of Garrido.

c.g. November 21, 2009, 10:09 AM

the answer is simple.. STAY OUT OF JAIL- PERIOD!!! think about the consequences of your actions before the possibility of incarceration becomes a factor. this is not a popular concept. the popular concept is to cry out “unfair” “inhumane” “abusive” give it a rest people.

Amy January 31, 2010, 9:19 AM

WOW… I cannot believe the ignorance of the american society. Many of you should be ashamed of your completely IGNORANT judgments of others.
My mother went to prison, for a non-violent crime, when I was 13. She was NOT a bad mother. She was HIGHLY educated and made a stupid choice at work. (white collar crime)
She went to prison for 1.5 yrs. Do you know who paid the price for that? NOT your damn tax dollars… I DID! Me,the child left at home without a mother. It was MY emotional state that was effected. It was MY life that was torn apart. How dare you prioritize your TAX DOLLARS over children??? Children NEED the love and support of their parents! PERIOD. And you need a greater education if you believe that ALL prisoners are “worthless” human beings. You have no idea what they have done… or even if they were innocent and incarerated through injustice.
The children of ALL imprisoned parents still NEED them. They NEED their love. They NEED the connection.

Couch March 31, 2010, 8:29 PM

I do not feel that bad for these women. It takes A LOT for a judge to send a pregnant women to jail to begin with. I do, however, feel horrible for these babies. No prenatal care? How is that legal? You’re punishing the unborn child, NOT the mother. Shackles during labor, well that comes with the crimes that landed her in that position to begin with. I’m sure they do it because shackles cost less than paying a guard to be in the room during the labor, delivery, and recovery. Anything that is done that negatively effects that baby is WRONG! End of story.
I do not see the mom not being in her child’s life as a bad thing. What kind of flounce would see make anyway? They’d be better off in foster care. These residential “family” facilities would only draw more women into getting pregnant to get better treatment. Not to mention the effects growing up in one of those places, away from the real world, would have on a child.

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