[Pnews] US Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies
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Mon Sep 28 16:04:05 EDT 2015
U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and
Features » September 28, 2015
Our 6-month investigation reveals the horrific and shameful conditions
facing pregnant prisoners—and the inhumane treatment they receive.
Though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s
women, it has 33 percent of the world’s women prisoners.
BY Victoria Law <http://inthesetimes.com/community/profile/322132>
At 5 a.m. on June 12, 2012, lying on a mat in a locked jail cell,
without a doctor, Nicole Guerrero gave birth.
Guerrero was eight-and-a half months pregnant when she arrived 10 days
earlier at Texas’ Wichita County Jail. The medical malpractice lawsuit
Guerrero has filed—against the county, the jail’s healthcare contractor,
Correctional Healthcare Management, and one of the jail’s nurses,
LaDonna Anderson—claims she began experiencing lower back pain, cramps,
heavy vaginal discharge and bleeding on June 11. The nurse on duty told
her there was no cause for concern until she had bled through two
sanitary napkins. Several painful hours later, Guerrero pushed the
medical emergency button in her cell.
At 3:30 a.m., more than four hours later, Guerrero was finally taken to
the nurse’s station. Guerrero says she showed Anderson her used sanitary
pads filled with blood and fluids, but was not examined. Instead, she
was taken to a one-person holding cell with no toilet, sink or emergency
call button, known as the “cage.” At 5 a.m., her water broke. She called
out to Anderson, but, Guerrero says, Anderson refused to check on her.
Shortly after, Guerrero felt her daughter’s head breach. A passing guard
stopped to assist her, and Guerrero, unable to keep from pushing, gave
birth on a blood and pus-covered mattress.
The baby was dark purple and unresponsive, with the umbilical cord
wrapped around her neck. When Anderson arrived minutes later, she did
not attempt to revive the baby, Guerrero says. The EMTs got there after
20 minutes and rushed the baby to the hospital. Guerrero remained in the
cage, where she delivered the placenta. At 6:30 a.m., the baby was
No data, no problem
The number of women who cycle through U.S. jails is increasing by
approximately 1.6 percent each year, to 109,100 in 2014, while the
number of women in prisons has risen nearly tenfold in the past 40
years, to 111,300 in 2013. Though the United States accounts for only 5
percent of the world’s women, it has 33 percent of the world’s women
There is no current data on how many of those women are pregnant. In
2004, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey
<http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mpp.pdf> found that 3 percent of
women in federal prisons and 4 percent of those in state prisons were
pregnant upon arrival. The statistics on pregnancy in local jails is
older—a 2002 survey <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mpji.pdf> found
that 5 percent of women entered local jails pregnant. At those rates,
approximately 9,430 pregnant women are incarcerated annually.
There is even less data on what kind of care pregnant prisoners receive:
their nutrition, prenatal check-ups and medical attention, which can be
a matter of infant life or death in cases like Guerrero’s. Nor do we
hear much about the trauma of pregnancy and childbirth under prison
conditions, or the heartbreak of having an infant taken away hours after
In a six-month investigation, /In These Times/ reached out to dozens of
incarcerated women, activists and advocates, seeking to reach women who
had been pregnant behind bars. Twelve came forward to share their stories.
/In These Times/ then requested information about pregnancy care and
policies from the prisons and jails where the women were incarcerated.
Only four of eight complied. Correct Care Solutions, a contractor that
provides healthcare at Nashville’s Davidson County Jail, refused,
declaring that private companies do not need to open their records to
public scrutiny. Those that did provide records typically took months to
do so, and the data was often poor. Phoenix’s Maricopa County Jail
records live births, miscarriages and abortions, but not stillbirths.
Washington’s Clark County Jail keeps track of the number of medical
visits by pregnant women (42 in 2014), but not the number of pregnant
However, from the 12 individual women’s accounts, a picture began to
emerge. Many received no medical care or experienced long waits. Most
were constantly hungry. Others were restrained during labor, delivery or
postpartum recovery, even in states that ban the practice. The majority
of those who gave birth in custody had their infants taken away within
Care and loathing
Medical neglect can endanger the lives of pregnant women as well as fetuses.
Diana Claitor, executive director of the Jail Project of Texas
<http://www.texasjailproject.org/>, says she interviewed a young woman
whose complaints of extreme pain were dismissed by a jail doctor as
morning sickness. But “it was because her fetus had been dead for some
time,” says Claitor, who also examined the woman’s medical records. “She
was very ill and could have died.” The woman was finally taken to the
emergency room, where she delivered the dead fetus.
Bridgette Gibbs says that, despite telling staff of her history of
miscarriages, she received no medical attention in two months of
pregnancy at the Westchester County, N.Y., jail. She still hadn’t been
examined when, early in her second trimester, she went into labor.
Before being taken to the hospital, she was strip-searched and shackled
at the hands, waist and ankles. She gave birth to twins handcuffed to
the bed, and was still handcuffed there hours later when she learned
that her premature newborns had died. The hospital told her that the
early labor was the result of a treatable infection. (The Westchester
County Department of Correction could not confirm or deny her story,
saying that it no longer has Gibbs’ records.)
In Arizona, complaints about prison medical care prompted the ACLU and
the Prison Law Office to file a class-action suit
in 2012. An accompanying investigation
<http://www.prisonlaw.com/pdfs/ParsonsExhibit4.pdf> uncovered two
incidents in the summer of 2013 when officials at the state prison in
Perryville dismissed women’s claims that they were going into labor. One
woman said that it took two hours to convince the guards to transport
her to the hospital. She gave birth 20 minutes after arrival. The other
said nurses refused to believe her water had broken even after it tested
positive for amniotic fluid. Officers sent her to the hospital only when
she began screaming.
‘It hurts to be hungry like that’
Pregnant women especially need nutrient-rich food. It’s typically
recommended that they eat three or more servings of fresh fruits,
vegetables, dairy and protein each day, as well as several servings of
whole grain breads or other complex carbohydrates. Nutritional deficits
can, for example, increase the risk of gestational diabetes, which can
cause a fetus’s trunk and shoulders to become too big for vaginal birth.
“Withholding healthy food from a pregnant woman is withholding medical
care,” says Tess Timoney, a certified nurse-midwife and director of
women’s HIV services at New York’s Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.
In jails and prisons, meal times, foods and portions are limited. More
than half of the dozen women interviewed by /In These Times/ recalled an
overwhelming, unrelenting hunger.
Some jails and prisons specify a special pregnancy diet and an
additional snack. But women report that these foods are often inadequate.
Twenty-three-year-old Minna Long was pregnant with twins when she
entered the Clark County jail in Washington state in 2010. She received
an extra 8-ounce carton of milk with all three meals, but, she recalls,
“There were countless times the milk was expired and sour and I couldn’t
drink it.” Her pregnancy also caused her to feel revulsion toward many
of the foods served. During her four months in jail, she subsisted on
milk, fruit and cold cereal, as well as commissary purchases of donuts,
candy, trail mix, meat and cheese sticks, and flavored popcorn.
Kandyce (who is still incarcerated, and asked that her last name not be
used and her prison not be specified, for fear of retaliation) says that
when she was pregnant in prison in 2014, between breakfast and dinner
was a 12-hour wait. “It hurts to be hungry like that,” she says.
‘I don’t ever want to be pregnant again’
Even when medical care is adequate, the restrictions and confinement
inherent in prisons can make pregnancy and birthing traumatic. It is
standard policy in U.S. prisons and jails to strip search prisoners upon
entering and exiting, including a squat and cough, with no exceptions
for pregnant or postpartum women.
A five-year study by the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York
found that while there were delays in pregnancy care upon arrival, most
women in state prisons then received prenatal care at roughly the
frequency recommended by the U.S. Department of Health. Waiting for
those visits, however, was often painful. Women were seated for up to
five hours on a narrow wooden bench with no food or water. Though
pregnant women are supposed to move around frequently to ease muscle
tension and prevent fluid build-up, the women were not allowed to stand,
and were often threatened with disciplinary tickets if they leaned back.
Kandyce saw a doctor regularly during her pregnancy, but the nurses, she
says, strictly enforced the prison’s policies and often refused her
doctor’s requests. For instance, her doctor asked for a wedge pillow and
an extra mattress to supplement the thin prison mattress. “As you get
bigger, they get thinner,” Kandyce recalls. “I’m already heavyset and
being pregnant was even worse—I couldn’t really breathe if I wasn’t
propped up.” The nurses denied her the pillow but allowed extra
blankets. Those were confiscated by officers in the monthly room search,
however, and each time, Kandyce had to go to the sergeant to get them
back. “By the time I was eight months pregnant, I was really
frustrated,” she said.
Medical staff told Kandyce that she needed a caesarean section. The
night before, she was placed in the prison’s Inpatient Unit. “You’re in
a room by yourself—no TV, no book, no nothing,” she recalls. “All you do
is sit in this room by yourself. You know that you’re about to have your
baby [and] that you’re going to have to give your daughter up. All you
have time to do is think about it.” By 11 a.m., when officers arrived to
transport her to the hospital, she no longer wanted to go through with
it. “I just wanted to keep my baby with me.”
Normally, caesarean sections require only regional anesthesia, but when
Kandyce arrived at the hospital, she was so stressed and anxious that
the doctor—a man she had never met—decided to put her to sleep. “My
daughter was going to be here and everything was wrong,” she recalls
thinking. Her daughter was born healthy, but the entire experience was
so devastating that Kandyce says, “I don’t ever want to be pregnant again.”
Each time Minna Long went to court, jail staff placed her in handcuffs,
ankle cuffs and a waist chain, a practice known as shackling. Then, they
stopped. Washington had become the seventh state to pass legislation
restricting the shackling of pregnant women. That was in 2010; fourteen
states have followed suit.
But advocacy groups in California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania
and Texas have found that the practice persists despite bans. Sierra
Watts, 37, incarcerated in Washington state just after the law went into
effect, learned this firsthand. While she was allowed to give birth
without restraints, she was then cuffed to the bed. Her son was placed
in a cradle next to her. “I just had to lean over to get him out, but
it’s harder when you can’t move that far,” she says.
The Washington State Department of Corrections says that “a
post-incident review determined she was not supposed to be cuffed.”
For Sierra Watts, the worst part wasn’t the shackling, but what
followed. Although she had granted her mother temporary guardianship,
child welfare workers told her that they would not send her son to live
with his grandmother. After spending 24 hours with her newborn, Watts
was taken back to prison without knowing her son’s fate. Because he was
born on a Friday, he was to remain in the hospital until child welfare
offices opened on Monday.
As Watts tells this story, her eyes fill with tears.“He was going to
stay in the hospital with nobody holding him, nobody knows where he’s
going, nobody’s even going to tell me where he’s going,” she says.
“Nobody said [to me], ‘It’s going to be okay. We’re going to watch him.
We won’t let anything happen to him.’ ” She did not learn where he was
placed until the following Tuesday. The next—and last—time she saw him
in person was during a prison visit one year later, shortly before he
Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, if a child is in foster
care for 15 of 22 months, the state must begin proceedings to terminate
parental rights. Watts says that she initially fought to maintain
custody, but finally signed away her rights. “They told me that if I was
to take it to trial and lose, then I wouldn’t be able to get photos or
hear how he’s doing or send him cards or anything,” she says. She
receives photos of her son, age 3, several times a year, but never sees
or speaks to him.
That’s relatively common for incarcerated women who give birth; two
other women interviewed by /In These Times/ arranged for their babies to
By contrast, when Michelle Barton, 37, gave birth in an Oklahoma prison
in 2013, she knew that her baby would be safe with her sister-in-law,
who was already taking care of Barton’s 3-year-old son until her release
from prison. But she still cried when it was time to leave the hospital.
Upon her return to prison, she was reminded how little motherhood means
there. A nurse had given her a piece of paper with her daughter’s
footprint. The officer who strip-searched her upon arrival threw it
away. “Getting strip searched is nothing,” Barton says, but watching her
daughter’s footprint tossed into the garbage “just tore my heart out.”
Michelle Barton’s daughter was 18 months old when Barton was released
from prison in August. She boarded a bus to Oklahoma City with only the
clothes on her back. Although she has a job lined up at Church’s
Chicken, she is homeless and cannot reclaim her two young children from
her sister-in-law until she finds affordable housing.
The Mabel Bassett Correctional Center spends $14,800 per year to
incarcerate each woman. Barton was there for nearly two years. What if
that $29,600 had been spent directly on resources for her and her family?
Oklahoma’s incarceration cost is dramatically low. At the Washington
Corrections Center for Women, incarcerating each woman costs $44,400 per
year. Sierra Watts was sentenced to 40 months. What if the $148,000
spent to imprison her had instead been spent to help her stay out of the
The UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial
Measures for Women Offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules
that for a pregnant woman or a child’s primary caregiver, “non-custodial
measures should be preferred where possible and appropriate.” But
pregnancy and parenting are rarely taken into consideration in the U.S.
legal system. Across the nation, more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1
million fathers of children under 18 are behind bars. Approximately 10
million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their
Recognizing that maternal incarceration can devastate children, some
states are exploring alternatives. In November 2014, the Delaware
Department of Correction created New Expectations, a group home for
pregnant women with drug addictions who would otherwise be imprisoned.
The home provides meals, prenatal vitamins, clothing, toys, intensive
substance abuse counseling, and classes on infant care, parenting,
breastfeeding, nutrition and budgeting. But the facility is run by the
Department of Corrections and its healthcare provider, Connections
Community Support Programs, and the doors are locked and alarmed.
By contrast, New York City’s Drew House
<http://cjinvolvedwomen.org/innovators-drew-house> and JusticeHome
independently of the prison system. To be eligible, mothers must plead
guilty to felony charges—but the charges are dismissed once they
complete the program. In the meantime, they avoid prison, and their
children avoid foster care.
Olgita Blackwood’s youngest child was barely a week old when she was
arrested. “I was so worried about my kids,” she told the Associated
“They depend on me. They asked for me every day.” The 24-year-old was
sent to Drew House instead of prison, enabling her to stay with her
three children. Nearly two years later, as she prepared to take her GED,
she said that the program made her independent. “I can make decisions on
my own, raise my kids. I can’t imagine it any other way now.”
What if such alternatives to incarceration were available everywhere?
The Bangkok Rules recognize that women’s needs are unmet in a prison
model designed for men and that women’s incarceration is often a result
of layers of gender discrimination. In addition to recommending
non-custodial measures for pregnant women, the UN urges countries to
establish alternatives to imprisonment for /all/ women.
If the United States took these ideas seriously—or at least took
seriously its basic healthcare responsibilities in its prisons and
jails—today, Nicole Guerrero might be watching her 3-year-old daughter,
Myrah Arianna, scamper around the playground.
/This investigation was supported by the Fund for Investigative
Journalism <http://fij.org/> and the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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