Have you ever wondered what would happen if a woman was pregnant and had to go to jail for a long time? I would hope none of my readers would ever face such a situation, but it does happen. Unfortunately, most stories do not have good endings. As I poured through dozens of accounts of incarcerated women and their pregnancies, I realized that childbirth is not a time of joy and excitement for many imprisoned women, instead, the experience is tainted with fear and the dread of leaving their babies, possibly forever.
In 1994, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 3% of women in federal prisons were pregnant at the time of admittance. I couldn’t find any more recent data on the number of pregnant women in prison, but I did find that the numbers of women being imprisoned has risen considerably since that report, so it can only be assumed that the number of pregnant women in prison has risen as well.
Women with healthy pregnancies are cared for by prison health services, but those with high risk pregnancies are taken to an outside hospital by a prison guard. For many women, this trip to the outside world is humiliating, as they are often strip searched and shackled.
When it comes time to give birth, women are supposed to be taken to the hospital, but I read several stories of women whose cries were ignored and they ended up giving birth in their cells all alone. Those who gave birth in the hospital still faced the pain of spending only 24 hours with their baby before returning to jail. Some women have no one to care for their child in the outside world and lose their child to the foster care system. In some states, parental rights are terminated after two years and the women never see their child again.
Nine states have prison nursery programs, which allow imprisoned women to keep their newborns with them for a limited, set amount of time. Some states also run community based programs that allow women to serve their sentence and parent their child outside of the prison walls. More and more people are speaking up for these programs, since it is believed that allowing imprisoned women to raise their children in the controlled setting will help them turn their lives around and reduce the likelihood of recidivism. The bond they develop with their child will inspire them to work hard at providing a better life for their child and will motivate them to stay out of trouble in the future.