The United States houses about one-third of the world’s imprisoned women; estimates range between 210,000 to 250,000 women total. Of course, statistics dictate some of these women are pregnant at some point during their incarceration. Prison is not a gentle place to live, which means it’s not at all ideal for pregnant people. In a landmark study originated in Johns Hopkins, researchers analyzed the experiences of pregnant women in prison. From 2016-2017, the Pregnancy In Prison Statistics project tracked 1,396 pregnant people admitted to prison. The outcomes of their pregnancies speak to the circumstances these women face. This isn’t pretty, people.
According to the Pregnancy In Prison Statistics project, or PIPS, most imprisoned women are of child-bearing age and are the primary caretaker for any children in their family. This means that women who already have children are unable to provide stabilizing care during their sentence. Most women who give birth while incarcerated are forced to give their newborn over to the care of family or foster care.
One mother, Alanda Patterson, was five months pregnant when she entered prison. She had a history of strokes and even suffered a stroke just after beginning her sentence, so she was deemed a high-risk pregnancy. Alanda recalls being treated to extra food and given Ensure shakes during her pregnancy. After she delivered, her daughter was placed in foster care. The foster mother seemed kind, sending Alanda pictures of her daughter, Genesis, every month. In July 2017, Alanda learned her baby had died due to blunt force trauma to the head. She wasn’t even two years old.
Pregnant women account for about 4% of the total female U.S. prison population. Even still, our privatized prison system has no universal standard of care for pregnant women. For example, Alanda was given double portions of her food and nutritional shakes during pregnancy. Other women report diets high in simple carbohydrates and unhealthy fats; such a diet can increase a woman’s risk for gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. Both conditions require continuous medical monitoring, something sorely lacking for expectant prisoners.
For the most part, pregnant prisoners have to fend for themselves. They are routinely denied access to medical care and adequate nutrition. In fact, some pregnant women and their babies experience negative birth outcomes due to lack of medical attention. 19-year-old Tianna Laboy begged for her doctor for days before giving birth to her baby in her prison cell toilet. Tianna was a first-time mom who had no idea what birth might involve. Her cellmate had to instruct her to get fluid - and toilet water - out of the baby’s airway.
A typical inmate is shackled during transport anywhere outside the prison. Shackles include connecting handcuffs to ankle cuffs with a length of chain wrapped around the inmate’s waist. Sometimes the handcuffs are tied tightly to the torso with a small black box. This makes it impossible for a prisoner to protect themselves from falling; she can’t brace herself with her hands. Even though 22 states prohibit the shackling of pregnant women, not all individual agents follow the law.
The convergence of each of these issues - isolation, nutrition, lack of care - hit one expectant prisoner especially hard. Miranda Barnett was addicted to opiates when she was arrested two years ago. Unfortunately, opiate withdrawal can cause premature labor. Barnett requested methadone, a medication designed to manage opiate withdrawals. Her requests were ignored and she was transferred to a dedicated women’s prison. During transit, she was shackled even after telling the guard she was pregnant. Morning sickness overcame her and Barnett vomited on herself. She was left to sit in her own puke for the rest of the trip.
Prisoners are people. Sometimes those people are pregnant, too. The way a society treats its prisoners says a lot about the health of that society. Before the PIPS study, the only system-wide research on the topic was published in 1998. Armed with more information, policy analysts hope to create changes that protect pregnant prisoners from neglect and abuse. In fact, some are already making legislative changes to help mothers have their best pregnancy - even if they’re behind bars.