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New Bill Aims To Protect Those Imprisoned While Pregnant

Modified from flickr / Nick Price

“Women are categorically neglected, forgotten about, and the fact we have no systemic data on pregnancy in prison reflects that.”

Shortly after Nicole Bennett was sent to prison in 2012 at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, CA, she discovered she was pregnant. Like nearly every pregnant woman in prison in the United States, Bennett was kept with the general prison population throughout her pregnancy aside from monthly hospital visits and giving birth.

“When my daughter was born in April 2012, she was born with pneumonia and taken straight to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit),” Bennett told me in an interview. “They sent me back to the jail the next morning.” She was shackled during 22 hours of labor. “A correctional officer let me spend five minutes with her in the NICU, but that’s all the time I was allowed to have.”

Throughout her pregnancy, Bennett wasn’t allowed to see the two ultrasounds she was given to monitor the baby, she struggled getting in and out of her assigned bottom bunk, and wasn’t reunited with her baby until a year after she was released from prison and regained custody in 2014—even as her daughter was in the NICU for two weeks with feeding tubes and labeled, “failure to thrive.”

“There was a good chance my daughter wasn’t going to make it,” Bennett added. Despite her newborn daughter’s poor health, she remained separated throughout the recovery. “I think programs for pregnant women in jail should be expanded and offered to everyone—or we should open one of the closed prison facilities and devote it just to pregnant women so the mothers can spend time with their newborns and have that bonding time.”

A correctional officer let me spend five minutes with her in the NICU, but that’s all the time I was allowed to have. Click To Tweet

A new bill proposed in the House of Representatives on September 13—the Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018—seeks to reform this culture within the United States Prison System where pregnant women in prison are poorly treated, often kept in shackles, denied adequate healthcare, and separated from their babies once they are born.

“Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) and I thought if we did a bill around pregnancy during incarceration it would be an opportunity to raise everyone’s understanding that there are pregnant women in prison, and it would be a way to unify all the women in the house,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who co-authored the bill with Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Rep. Mia Love (R-UT).

Needless to say, gender is a primary issue happening in the capitol as we speak, so this is an opportunity to come around on a gender issue that is really not controversial.”

The bill seeks to develop a national standard of care in federal prisons for pregnant women and provide incentives for state prison systems to adhere to the same standards, which include providing adequate healthcare, prohibiting restrictive housing, and the use of shackles on pregnant women.

“We incarcerate a lot of parents, we incarcerate women who are pregnant and when they give birth in prison, those babies are turned over to the foster system, or if they are lucky enough they go to kinship care if they have family,” ACLU National Prison Project Deputy Director Amy Fettig told me. “The lasting impacts of being separated from your child or being separated from your parent are burdens that communities in the country really bear and by and large they are poor communities of color.”

Mass incarceration in the United States widely impacts women, and criminal justice reforms often ignore reducing women prison populations in favor of men. Since 2009, women prison populations in 35 states have either grown faster than men prison populations—increased while men’s prison population has decreased—or declined at lower rates than men.

133 women are incarcerated per 100,000 people, the highest rate of incarceration in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, though only four percent of the women in the world live in the United States, more than 30 percent of the global women prison population are in U.S. prisons.

An estimated 219,000 women are currently incarcerated in the U.S. Prison system, but the Department of Justice hasn’t collected any data in regards to pregnancies within this population. The Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018 would require the Department of Justice to begin to collect data on pregnant women in prison.

The lasting impacts of being separated from your child or being separated from your parent are burdens largely born by poor communities of color. Click To Tweet

In lieu of this lack of data, Dr. Carolyn Beth Sufrin at Johns Hopkins University started the PIPS (Pregnancy in Prison Statistics) project to collect recent data on pregnant women in prison. Twenty-two state prison systems, six jails, and three departments of juvenile justice have reported statistics to the project, which are currently under peer review. The project’s results will likely be released in early 2019.

“There are pregnant women who are in prisons and jails across the country,”  Dr. Sufrin said. “That’s the main point the PIPS project is shedding light on. Until this project, we haven’t had any idea how many women are pregnant. Part of this reflects the notion these women are categorically neglected, forgotten about, and the fact we have no systemic data on them reflects that.”

Without any data, Dr. Sufrin argued, it’s difficult to diagnose problems within the systems and develop solutions. “If we want to understand the scope of this problem and what the needs are, having data is essential,” she added.

Though there are a few prison programs in the United States that provide nurseries and opportunities for women prisoners to spend time with their babies after birth, Dr. Sufrin noted these programs aren’t a solution to the mass incarceration of women in general. Rather, they are necessary under the current system as criminal justice reform advocates push toward a broader vision of what the prison system should look like.

“Most of the women in the U.S. have been charged with nonviolent offenses, and most of them don’t necessarily need to be in custody and this is true for pregnant people,” Dr. Sufrin continued.

“They’ve been born into terrible circumstances, struggle with poverty, addiction, being victims of sexual and physical abuse, and prison is just part of that pathway. The bigger picture is thinking about alternatives to incarceration for pregnant people in the criminal legal system and instead being managed in the community. We can cultivate compassion and openness for alternatives for these women so they and their children can live better lives.”

Under the current system, Dr. Sufrin cited the need to ensure pregnant women behind bars are getting the social support and healthcare they need while working to achieve a broader vision in how pregnant women in prison are broadly treated.

Women are categorically neglected, forgotten about, and the fact we have no systemic data on pregnancy in prison reflects that. Click To Tweet

Lynne Paltrow, the Executive Director and Founder of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, agreed with the notion that pregnant women should not be kept in prison custody, as the idea of using the prison system to address health and social welfare issues is a rampant perpetuator of mass incarceration in the United States.

“We don’t believe the government should be about separating families, whether its on the border, through child welfare or through incarceration,” Paltrow told me in an interview. “We need to stop criminalizing and incarcerating women in the extraordinary way we do in the United States. A very large percentage of women in prison are mothers and we shouldn’t be locking them up in the first place.”