[Pnews] US Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
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 
pronounced dead.

            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 
women incarcerated.

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 
48 hours.

            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.”

            Sierra’s choice

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 
was adopted.

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 
be adopted.

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.”

            Another way

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 
prison system?

The UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial 
Measures for Women Offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules 
<https://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/docs/2010/res%202010-16.pdf>, recommend 
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 
<http://www.wpaonline.org/services/alternative-to-incarceration> operate 
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 
Investigative Reporting./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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