What is it like when you’re pregnant in prison? - gal-dem (2023)

TW: descriptions of sexual assault and violence

All eyes are on America’s justice system right now. As police abolition becomes a mainstream conversation, we’re reminded of the unique experience of prisoners too. The United States has 4% of the world’s population of women but 30% of it’s incarcerated women’s population.

While 231,000 women are reported to be imprisoned or detained in jail facilities, state prisons, federal prisons, immigration detention facilities, and more, there is scant official data on the number of non-binary, trans, genderfluid, and intersex population that are incarcerated—all of whom need reproductive health access. Most people who give birth while incarcerated have to hand their baby over to a family member or friend. This is just one of the stressful choices pregnant people face while incarcerated. However, the jail system systematically attempts to remove women and non-binary inmates’ agency over their own bodies.

The US is responsible for around a third of the global women’s prison population. Inequality is inherent in the experience of incarceration from the outset; black and indigenous women are disproportionately represented in prisons and jails, meaning that prisons exist as a microcosm of the country’s dehumanising treatment of people who are already marginalised. Add to this the experience of being pregnant, or being somebody who could fall pregnant and there’s a myriad of issues you can’t control. Solitary confinement, medical negligence, forced sterilisation, and sexual assault combine to compound staggering reproductive injustice in prisons.

Horrifying stories have recently come to light. In September 2019, a woman gave birth unsupervised in Britain’s largest women’s prison, resulting in the death of her baby. A UK government report details accounts of people miscarrying while wearing handcuffs, and in North Carolina, incarcerated pregnant people routinely give birth in solitary confinement. During the Covid-19 crisis, it has been found that pregnant people are more at risk, yet they still languish in cells. In late April, Andra Circle Bear, a Native American woman, died in prison in Fort Worth, TX after giving birth on a ventilator one month earlier. She was serving a short two year sentence for a minor drug charge. Around the same time, NY Daily News reported that lawyers at The Legal Aid Society wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision acting commissioner Anthony Annucci demanding that 10 pregnant women be released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. As of last month over half of them were still there.

There are no mandatory standards of care for pregnant people in U.S. prisons. Although the discussion around reproductive justice has increased, people in prison are rendered invisible in the face of the crisis over reproductive justice at large in America. “I don’t see how there can be reproductive justice for the masses when so many people are in cages and their experiences are left out of the greater conversations,” said Alexia Arocha-Bergquist, a former Legal Advocacy Coordinator at Justice Now. The reproductive rights movement needs to actively advocate for reproductive justice for all, including those behind bars.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine say almost 1,400 pregnant women were admitted to 22 U.S. state and federal prisons in 2016;the rate of increase of women in custody has surpassed that of men.

Coerced, punished and traumatized

Incarcerating women can break up family units and lead to mental illness and sterilisation for those directly impacted. They can be shackled during childbirth as seen first hand by Dr Carolyn Sufrin, an assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They can have their complaints of contractions, bleeding, and labour ignored, and deliver babies in their jail cells or prison cells.

“The prison staff tried to force me to terminate [my] pregnancy, claiming that as a ward of the state, I had no choice,” says Laura Berry, a previously incarcerated person, in a Buzzfeed article. “But I refused and was put into solitary confinement for lying about who had fathered the child, and for having had ‘consensual’ sex with an officer. In solitary, I had no mattress and was fed only bologna sandwiches.”

In many cases, the trauma of pregnancy in prison is longstanding. “I’m laying there, I’m bleeding, I’m shackled to a bed, I’ve got these two men down between my legs that I don’t know from Adam, and they’re there saying that they threw my baby in the trash,” Pamela Winn, a formerly incarcerated woman, told The Independent of the moment. “It’s not something I will ever forget. Ever.”

“The prison staff tried to force me to terminate [my] pregnancy, claiming that as a ward of the state, I had no choice”

Imprisoned pregnant people are at the will of the prison and many times punished for self-advocating. “Even if one of the [women] had intercourse with an officer and became pregnant [with or without consent], the abortion would be denied,” says Crystal Chisholm, a formerly incarcerated individual and a client of Operation New Hope, an organisation that supports people get skills for a job post-incarceration. “Normally if there was an issue with an officer, the [women] would end up in confinement.”

Prisons also have a prevailing history of coerced sterilisation onto imprisoned people. “Incarcerated people who have marginalised identities, or populations who are deemed ‘undesirable’ were disproportionately being coerced into sterilisation,” says Hanâ Zait, a former Legal Advocate at Justice Now. “Based on the history of eugenics [in the United States], there are certain groups of people that the state doesn’t want to have reproductive agency.”

Buck v. Bell, the court case which reversed the compulsory sterilisation of those committed in state institutions, has yet to be reversed by the United States Supreme Court. State senators in California introduced Senate Bill 1135 in 2014 to prevent coercive sterilisation unless medically necessary for the individual. Not only is the bill overdue, but it is indicative of how poor the human rights abuses inside the institutions must be nationwide. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 people that are registered as a female in California received tubal ligations without their consent between 2006 and 2010.

“Rather than solely focusing on the right to not give birth to a child, we should be having a larger conversation about the right to choose whether or not to have a child, when to have that child, and the ability to raise that child in a safe environment,” says Zait. “People in prison are routinely denied rights, be it folks who wanted to have kids but were coercively sterilised, or folks who may already be caregivers but are forcibly ripped away from their children through incarceration.”

What should happen vs what really happens

If no one can help, then the baby goes to the Office of Children’s Services. In some states, there has been a push to create prison nurseries that allow women to keep their newborn children with them, behind bars, where they can stay with their mothers until the child is 18 months or 2-years-old.

For Riker’s Island in New York City, admission to the nursery is determined by the Department of Correction and Administration for Children’s Services review, outlines Jennine Ventura, the Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Correctional Health Services. It is based on the best interest of the child and must be in accordance with section 611 of New York state correction law. The nursery is a space for expectant mothers to live together. There are baby beds available and infants can stay in the nursery until the age of 1. Prenatal or postnatal care, mother/child residences, substance use treatment programs, and other social services are also provided. Mental health services for postnatal depression are available and termination of pregnancy services are offered through Elmhurst Hospital.

Although this is the policy written on paper and several courts have held that incarcerated women have the right to an abortion, many women are not able to get them. Incarcerated people are impeded from learning about their rights. Although there is a Prison Library, officers have the autonomy to decide what information to disperse, according to Chisholm. Sheriffs also refuse to pay for the transportation costs or monitoring, which is added to the cost of the abortion and totals tens of thousands of dollars. While some pregnant incarcerated people are not aware that abortions are even a legal option, others who are pregnant and jailed are still deterred from seeking abortions. Corrections staff may ignore and obstruct the request.

“People in prison are routinely denied rights, be it folks who wanted to have kids but were coercively sterilised, or folks who may already be caregivers but are forcibly ripped away from their children through incarceration.”

A system beyond reform

Abolition is the only solution. The prison abolition movement demands structural transformations to navigate violence and crime in this country and is supported by organisations such as Justice Now, Critical Resistance, and INCITE!. Justice Now provides direct legal services to people throughout the state of California. Critical Resistance is a grassroots organisation that works to build a mass movement to dismantle the prison-industrial complex. INCITE! is a network of radical feminists of colour organizing to end state violence. The abolition movement stems from abolitionist activism that ended slavery. Based on transformative justice, love, and intersectionality, abolition pushes us to understand layers of oppression and challenge systemic causes of oppression.

“From the lens of abolition one sees how everything intersects and it is imperative to see the intersections in order to move forward in protecting reproductive rights for all,” says Arocha-Bergquist.

By using abolition as a strategy, people can still tackle reproductive injustices by taking concrete steps such as donating to local grassroots organisations, such as National Network of Abortion Funds (a network of more than 80 funds in at least 38 states that seeks to eliminate economic barriers for low-income individuals seeking an abortion), volunteering as a clinic escort, facilitating workshops that discuss reproductive rights, and calling Congress to vocalise opinions.

It is also important to self educate about the racial implications of the “war on drugs” and the ways in which low-income communities of colour are targeted by law enforcement and harmed by current drug policies. We should have critical conversations (while prioritising our energies) about mass incarceration and reproductive justice and challenge language that reduces folks and brands them solely as criminals (i.e. calling people inside inmates, prisoners, etc.). These conversations have the potential to normalise abortions and destigmatise people practising self-agency over their bodies.

Reproductive justice for everyone is an urgent issue because reproductive rights are being attacked now; our activism can serve as a stepping stone towards accountability. We are even seeing victories, including after an ongoing silent protest against the multiple accounts of mental and physical abuse in Lowell Correctional Institute, Florida Department of Law Enforcement will be leading an investigation. “We want to share with the world that we are not just a number,” says Chisholm. Our participation in the resistance towards carceral injustice and reproductive injustice is paramount.

“I think it’s important to think about repurposing prisons and not only in the way that we incarcerate but by retraining and rehabilitating,” says Amanda Mahan, the Marketing Specialist at Operation New Hope. These tactics can have positive impacts with ripple effects on real lives, from a reunited family to a child delivered in comfort.

Whatever a world without police or prisons looks like has to be something dramatically different from the dehumanising behemoth that exists right now.


What is it like to be pregnant in prison? ›

Among incarcerated women, pregnancies are often unplanned and are complicated by lack of prenatal care, maternal trauma, poor nutrition, substance use, mental illness, chronic medical conditions, low socioeconomic status, and limited social support.

What are the problems with pregnancy in prisons? ›

Studies show that that pregnant incarcerated women have higher rates of poor perinatal outcomes(link is external and opens in a new window),(link is external and opens in a new window) such as miscarriage, preterm infants, and infants who are small for their gestational age, compared to women in the general population.

How often do female inmates get pregnant? ›

I worked as an OB-GYN in a jail for about six years and took care of pregnant people. When writing or giving talks I would cite the statistic that 3 to 5 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant, or that there are about 1,400 births every year to women in custody.

Can I get sperm from my husband in jail? ›

Prisoners have a constitutional right to procreate by artificial insemination, a Californian court has ruled in a controversial decision.

Are pregnant prisoners shackled? ›

Although widely regarded as an assault on human dignity as well as an unsafe medical practice, women prisoners are still routinely shackled during pregnancy and childbirth. Restraining pregnant prisoners at any time increases their potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall.

What do prisoners do in labor? ›

All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor.

What are three special problems that female inmates face while incarcerated? ›

Many incarcerated women face problems surrounding separation from children and family, inadequate mental health care, and insufficient substance abuse treatment during their imprisonment. The prison system is not made to deal with these personal traumas of incarcerated women.

Can you handcuff a pregnant woman? ›

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care all oppose routine shackling of pregnant inmates. The use of restraints or shackles on pregnant patients can be dangerous.

What is the biggest problem in prisons? ›

Overcrowding, as well as related problems such as lack of privacy, can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

Do female inmates get bras? ›

Inmates may keep underwear provided it does not resemble gym shorts or swim trunks. Female inmates may also keep bras provided wires are removed.

Do prisoners get condoms? ›

San Francisco has been distributing condoms to inmates in county jails for decades, but a new California law requires condoms to be made available to all state prisoners. California is the second state after Vermont to do so, even though sex between prisoners is unlawful here.

What is the First Step Act for pregnant prisoners? ›

Benefits of the First Step Act:

Title III: Restraints on pregnant prisoners is now prohibited by Title III of the First Step Act. This legislation provides major relief for women who are pregnant when they go into the prison system.

Can I spend the night with my husband in jail? ›

Typically, a person incarcerated in jail or prison is not allowed to spend private time with a spouse or domestic partner.

Do you have a cell mate in jail? ›

Walking into a prison housing unit for the first time is one of the most unsettling aspects of prison as new inmates are not only facing life in a prison cell but meeting a new cellmate, as most federal prisons include at least two prisoners per cell.

Can inmates mail sperm? ›

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A California inmate has no right to mail his sperm from prison to impregnate his wife, a divided federal appeals court ruled Thursday. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in reversing its September decision, said inmates have no constitutional right to procreate.

What happened to the girl who gave birth in jail? ›

Valentine was over eight months pregnant when she was arrested for an alleged probation violation and taken to the jail the day before she went into labor, the lawsuit said. Valentine was released several days later and her baby is doing well, she said Tuesday.

Who are the 4 female guards pregnant by inmate? ›

White has already pleaded guilty to a number of drug distribution and money laundering charges. The four prison guards namely, Jennifer Owens, Katera Stevenson, Chania Brooks and Tiffany Linder, are now facing charges for becoming pregnant while on duty. Steven Bakaluba and 17 others like this.

Do prisoners get eggs? ›

Prisons and jails may provide inmates with eggs as part of their daily meal plans. However, the specifics of what is provided and how they are served can vary depending on the facility and the region.

Where do prisoners give birth? ›

As of May 2013, nine states have prison nurseries in the United States: New York, Nebraska, Washington, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a maximum security women's prison in New York, has the oldest prison nursery in the United States.

What do prisoners do all day? ›

Inmates work in the kitchen, license tag plant or laundry, or perform maintenance or janitorial tasks during the day. Around 3 PM, the inmate usually checks his mail and spends some time on the recreation yard prior to returning to the dining hall for the evening meal at 4 PM.

What are inmate workers called? ›

Historically, terms such as "jailer" (also spelled "gaoler"), "guard" and "warder" have all been used.

Are female inmates less violent? ›

Female prisoners are much less likely to commit violence than their male counterparts. Thus, while prison gangs do exist in some women's prisons, they are not nearly as important.

What happens to the majority of children born to incarcerated mothers? ›

In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.

What is the average sentence for a woman in jail? ›

The average sentence for female offenders was 29 months, compared to 49 months for male offenders. 78.6% were sentenced to prison, compared to 93.9% of male offenders. 24.2% were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, compared to 24.1% of male offenders.

Can I wear spanks when pregnant? ›

While it's perfectly safe to wear Spanx while pregnant, and you aren't hurting yourself or your baby, you may find that shapewear becomes just too hot or uncomfortable as your baby grows.

What warrants bed rest during pregnancy? ›

Why Is Bed Rest Prescribed? Some doctors suggest bed rest for conditions like growth problems in the baby, high blood pressure or preeclampsia, vaginal bleeding from placenta previa or abruption, preterm labor, cervical insufficiency, threatened miscarriage, and other problems.

Can a pregnant woman be laid off? ›

California law prohibits an employer from terminating a pregnant worker due to her pregnancy. However, most employers understand California pregnancy discrimination laws and will rarely state that they are laying off a pregnant employee because of her pregnancy or its complications.

What are the 10 worst prisons in the United States? ›

Script written by Liam Hillery.
  • #8: Pelican Bay State Prison. ...
  • #7: Rikers Island. ...
  • #6: Louisiana State Penitentiary [aka Angola] ...
  • #5: San Quentin State Prison. ...
  • #4: Folsom State Prison. ...
  • #3: Sing Sing Correctional Facility. ...
  • #2: Attica Correctional Facility. ...
  • #1: ADX Florence.

What are the food issues in prisons? ›

The typical prison diet, which is high in salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, contributes to the elevated rates of diabetes and heart disease among the incarcerated population. People who are incarcerated in the U.S. are also six times more likely to contract a foodborne illness than the general population.

What is the 100 prisoners problem statement? ›

The 100 prisoners problem is a mathematical problem in probability theory and combinatorics. In this problem, 100 numbered prisoners must find their own numbers in one of 100 drawers in order to survive. The rules state that each prisoner may open only 50 drawers and cannot communicate with other prisoners.

Do female inmates get tampons? ›

These products must conform to industry standards. If any female prisoner in a detention facility needs a feminine hygiene product, the detention facility shall supply such product to the prisoner free of charge. The Commissioner of Corrections must provide products like tampons and sanitary pads for free upon request.

Do male guards watch female inmates shower? ›

The law, which sets standards for preventing and responding to sexual abuse, mandates that inmates must be able to shower and go to the bathroom without being watched by non-medical staff of another gender. In addition, male officers will be prohibited from patting down female inmates except in emergency situations.

Do inmates shower together? ›

Most prisoners will try to use the showers alone, but if it is close to lockdown or in the evening (when showers are busier), then it is normal for you to shower in tandem with a friend, whereas, much like in a gym shower room, you shower with others following a workout.

Can prisoners kiss? ›

At the beginning and end of each visit, incarcerated persons and their visitor(s) may briefly embrace and kiss. Incarcerated persons and their visitors may hold hands during the visit. An incarcerated person may hold minor children accompanying visitor.

Do they shave prisoners? ›

Prison and punishment

Prisoners commonly have their heads shaven to prevent the spread of lice, but it may also be used as a demeaning measure. Having the head shaved can be a punishment prescribed in law.

Are prisoners allowed deodorant? ›

The choice of items is limited to basic such as hair shampoo and deodorants and simple basic treats such as chocolate or biscuits. It is via the canteen sheet that you have money credited to your phone account. Each week you will be handed, usually just posted under your cell door, a canteen sheet to complete.

What are the four types of release? ›

Types of Release
  • Parole. "Parole" means the release of a prisoner to the community by the Board of Parole (BOP) prior to the expiration of the offender's sentence. ...
  • Probation. ...
  • Determinate Release. ...
  • Community Corrections.

When you have a baby in jail? ›

But what happens after an incarcerated woman gives birth? Again, this varies widely across the country. At least 11 states and some federal prisons have “prison nursery programs” or “mother-baby units.” These programs allow women to bring their babies back to jail or prison with them after giving birth.

What disqualifies you from the First Step Act? ›

Offenses that make inmates ineligible to earn time credits are generally categorized as violent, or involve terrorism, espionage, human trafficking, sex and sexual exploitation; additionally excluded offenses are a repeat felon in possession of firearm, or high-level drug offenses.

Do death row inmates get conjugal visits? ›

Even in states that allow conjugal visits for other prisoners, death row prisoners are not entitled to conjugal visits, and no state officially permits conjugal visits for death row prisoners.

Can I sue someone for sleeping with my husband? ›

Moreover, California does not have a criminal statute against adultery. This means you typically cannot sue someone for having an affair with your husband.

Do relationships work in jail? ›

Prison relationships face serious challenges, but can be a source of support after release. Making a relationship work is hard, but making a relationship work when one partner is in prison can be nearly impossible.

Do prisoners get to keep their cell phones? ›

Although some jails and prisons have allowed prisoners to have cell phones, since most don't, there are major risks to having illicit electronics. Getting caught with a contraband phone can result in losing privileges, spending months in solitary confinement or catching a new criminal charge.

Do prisoners sneak in cell phones? ›

In most jurisdictions, prison inmates are forbidden from possessing mobile phones due to their ability to communicate with the outside world and other security issues. Mobile phones are one of the most smuggled items into prisons.

Do prisoners get blankets and pillows? ›

Bedding in Prison

Securing bedding in federal prison works the same way as laundry does. When the new arrival comes in they will be issued a bedroll, which typically consists of two blankets, two sheets, two towels, and two washcloths.

What happens to pregnant inmates? ›

As most correctional facilities do not have on-site obstetric care, pregnant women are typically transported to community-based providers for prenatal care, and women in labor are transferred to medical facilities for delivery.

Do inmates have the right to procreate? ›

Prisoners have a constitutional right to procreate by artificial insemination, a Californian court has ruled in a controversial decision.

What happens to babies born in jail in California? ›

Pregnant inmates may choose any course of action to care for their child that would be available to them outside of prison, including; adoption, abortion, or foster care. A woman's right to terminate their pregnancy is not taken from them upon entering prison. Nor is their right to choose to become a mother.

Why are prisoners shackled? ›

Hospitalized incarcerated patients are commonly shackled throughout their duration of treatment in community medical centers to prevent escape or harm to others.

What happens to a child whose parent is in jail? ›

Previous research has found connections between parental incarceration and childhood health problems, behavior problems, and grade retention. It has also been linked to poor mental and physical health in adulthood. More than five million U.S. children have had a parent in prison.

What is the youngest child in jail? ›

Mary Bell is the youngest person to go to jail.

She committed her first murder in 1968 when she was 10.

How long do children born to pregnant federal inmates remain with the incarcerated mother? ›

Prison nursery programs allow a mother to parent her infant for a finite period of time, anywhere from 30 days to 30 months, depending on the facility.

Is it illegal to kick a pregnant woman out? ›

But the truth is that many women are treated unfairly — or even fired — after revealing the news of their pregnancy. As long as a pregnant woman is able to perform the major functions of her job, not hiring or firing her because she is pregnant is against the law.

What happens if my baby daddy goes to jail? ›

What Happens if the Parent Who Has Primary Custody Goes to Jail? In most cases, when one parent goes to jail, the other parent will be granted custody of the child or children. However, it's important to note that this is not always the case, and the judge will make their custody decision considering a set of factors.

Why are there more male prisoners than female? ›

There are also many more men than women serving time due to recidivism, which means repeated criminal behavior. For this reason, there are more male inmates serving their second prison sentence, or even more. Overall, the vast majority of U.S. prison inmates are male, though the number of female inmates is growing.

What happens when a baby is born on a plane? ›

The Airborne citizenship can be defined as the birthright citizenship for children born on plane or carrier. While it is normal for the new born baby to inherit the citizenship of parents, it is also possible for the child to acquire supplemental “airplane” citizenship, based on the airspace owned by the state.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rev. Leonie Wyman

Last Updated: 10/23/2023

Views: 6084

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (59 voted)

Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rev. Leonie Wyman

Birthday: 1993-07-01

Address: Suite 763 6272 Lang Bypass, New Xochitlport, VT 72704-3308

Phone: +22014484519944

Job: Banking Officer

Hobby: Sailing, Gaming, Basketball, Calligraphy, Mycology, Astronomy, Juggling

Introduction: My name is Rev. Leonie Wyman, I am a colorful, tasty, splendid, fair, witty, gorgeous, splendid person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.