Women are the most rapidly expanding population in the US corrections system. As a result, pregnancy and childbirth within jails and prisons has become an increasingly important issue. Birthing people in prison and jail face a myriad of issues related to breastfeeding, the possibility of being shackled while giving birth, and prenatal care, as well as the trauma of being separated from their newborns. This brief includes information about Federal, State, and Local correctional settings as it relates to birthing people and prenatal care.
According to Johns Hopkins University, 4% of women entering US state prisons from 2016-2017 were pregnant, a total of 1496 pregnant women, with 800 women giving birth while in custody. In the same time period, 3% of women entering US jails were pregnant (1622 women). Yet, there is alarmingly little regulation, information, and transparency to support people who are pregnant in carceral facilities, or to ensure that they are receiving proper nutrition, medical care, and treatment. There is no public data regarding the number of birthing people on Rikers Island or in New York State Correctional Facilities.
Only 11 prisons currently allow breastfeeding, and 5 jails allow breastfeeding and/or pumping in the United States. This prevents people from making autonomous choices regarding their bodies and how to provide nutrition to their children. The Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island in New York City allows those in their nursery program (which has 25 slots) to breastfeed, but one must apply and be accepted to participate in this program. Additionally, Bedford Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York, has the country’s oldest nursery program which allows children to remain with their mothers until they are 18 months old, but which individuals can be ejected from based on behavioral violations. These include falling asleep with one’s child, which is seen as a safety issue. Breastfeeding is allowed in Bedford’s nursery program, though they are not provided with breast pumps which might make the process easier. Additionally, many facilities have regulations prohibiting physical contact that prevent individuals from breastfeeding visiting children.
Currently 28 states (including New York) have laws preventing the shackling of pregnant people, though only some only bar shackling during childbirth. However, even in New York State, if an officer deems a pregnant person to be a threat to herself or others, they may be restrained. This practice is not only inhumane, but goes against the recommendations of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Prenatal care is also an area of concern within facilities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “All U.S. prisons and jails are required to provide prenatal care under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, but no detailed federal standards have been set to ensure that women are actually receiving the care they need.” The Pregnancy In Prison Statistics (PIPS) Project found that only 50% of pregnant women in state prison, and 46% in federal prison, reported receiving some form of prenatal care. 31 states lack any policy on nutrition for incarcerated pregnant people, who need approximately 300 extra calories each day, and have additional dietary restrictions and recommendations. There is little available data on prenatal care being provided in jails. The PIPS Project authors note, “Filling this gap in data from jails is essential to understanding the true prevalence of pregnancy among incarcerated women, because the differences between prisons and jails affect health care delivery.” New York State does not currently provide screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies within its facilities, which is potentially detrimental to the health of both birthing people and their future offspring. Research shows that a significant number of birthing people in jails and prisons have previous experience of trauma, poverty, substance use and poor medical care that makes their potential for complicated pregnancy outcomes even more likely. This makes screening for high-risk pregnancies even more essential within facilities than in the general population.
In July of 2021, Minnesota became the first state to adopt the Health Start Act, which allows the Commissioner of Correction to place people who are pregnant or have recently given birth in community-based alternatives to incarceration for their pregnancy and at least one year post-birth, in order to allow mothers and children to bond during this critical developmental stage. New York City Council has begun to address the needs of birthing people with a bill passed in August of 2021 that requires the Department of Corrections to implement a doula program, in which pregnant people will receive doula services twice per week, as well as during labor and delivery. While we are in favor of this bill, and any others that will lighten the burden of pregnancy for birthing people within facilities, WCJA believes that this is not nearly enough. In order to truly aid pregnant people in city jails, it is essential that New York City diverts this vulnerable population from facilities and adopts Alternatives to Detention that would allow pregnant people to give birth and bond with their newborns at home where they belong.
- Adopt Alternatives to Detention for pregnant people who are entering the justice system in New York State, rather than pre-trial detention.
- For all states, including New York, to follow Minnesota’s lead and adopt The Healthy Start Act, which allows allows the Commissioner of Corrections to place pregnant people and those who have recently given birth in alternative to incarceration programs for their child’s first year of life in order to allow parent and child to bond outside of a facility setting while receiving treatment and programming.
- Have monitoring boards responsible for ensuring that pregnant people who are being detained or incarcerated are receiving appropriate prenatal care.
- Have an onsite OB-GYN 24/7 at women’s facilities to provide care.
- Prohibit the shackling of pregnant people at all costs, even at the discretion of DOC staff.
- New York State must adopt screening measures and treatment protocol for high-risk pregnancies.
- Prohibit newborns from being expelled from facility nursery programs as a disciplinary consequence of their mothers’ actions.
- Ensure that Corrections Officers working with women are mandated to attend trainings on pregnancy and the needs of pregnant people, as well as trauma-informed communication training.
- Ensure that accurate data is collected and reported on pregnant people in US jails, as well as State and Federal prisons.