There are as many as 40,000 women imprisoned in the United States according to Justice Department statistics. Of these, an estimated 3,000-4,000 are pregnant. The typical female inmate is both poor and a single mother. Few are serving time for violent crimes; instead, many appear to be casualties of hard economic times and stressful home lives. Most are inside for petty theft, forgery, welfare fraud, drug abuse, or prostitution.
Because the penal system, by nature, is primarily concerned with security and confinement, prisoners’ health and well being are often a low priority with prison officials. For pregnant inmates, whose health needs are both greater and more specialized, the consequences of medical neglect can be tragic.
“Due to grossly inadequate medical care, incarceration of a pregnant woman is a potential death sentence to her unborn child,” says Ellen Barry, director of San Francisco’s Legal Service for Prisoners with Children.
Prison guards and administrators tend to single out pregnant inmates for harsher treatment because pregnancies are seen as an intrusion on routine and security. Pregnant women in U.S. prisons get little exercise or fresh air, eat poorly, and are crowded into unsanitary cells. In the worst of circumstances, pregnant prisoners are locked in stripped-down isolation cells, given drugs dangerous to their unborn children, or shackled during labor and recovery. Inmates who have lost children often find their grief dismissed by an indifferent medical staff.
In one study, researchers found that more than a third of the in prison pregnancies end in late-term miscarriages — more than twice the rate in the outside community. The late-term rate at one California jail was 50 times higher than the statewide rate. In fact, 80% of the imprisoned pregnant mothers there lost their babies. Inmates who do become mothers in prison face a different problem: separation from their newborns — often, depending on the individual prison’s policy, only 24 to 72 hours after delivery. If friends or relatives are not available to provide care, the child is placed in a foster home. If the mother remains imprisoned for more than a year, she may lost custody altogether; a 1981 Federal law allows such a child to be put up for permanent adoption.
Shelly Geballes, an attorney with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union said what is happening now in women’s prisons across the country is inexcusable. “Pregnant inmates are not only abused and neglected,” she says. “Their unborn children are punished as well, and then mother and child are punished again when they are separated. The crime just doesn’t fit the punishment.”
THE PROGRESSIVE, February 1988, “Pregnant in Prison: In one jail, 80 per cent lose their babies,” by Loren Stein and Veronique Mistiaen, pp 18-21.