Can You go to Prison if You’re Pregnant?

I’ve never had kids. But from what I hear, it’s a life changing experience. Obviously, I’m being silly. Of course getting pregnant and having a baby will change your entire world, and it can be one of the most exciting times in your life.

Even though I’m not a mom, I am an aunt. I’ve learned a few things about what life is like when you are expecting. Moms have to take care of themselves and eat healthy, avoid alcohol, avoid/limit caffeine, and stay active, if possible. There’s also a lot of preparation and planning for everything from diapers to childcare.

Pregnant women also have that “glow,” and they can get special treatment from time to time, like special parking spaces close to a store, or someone give up their seat on the subway so the pregnant woman can sit down. 

When a woman is carrying a child, it makes perfect sense that she takes the best possible care of herself, and for her community to do what they can to make sure she has a successful pregnancy.

But, what happens when a pregnant woman commits a crime and is sentenced to prison? Does the government really force that woman to spend her pregnancy behind bars and give birth in prison? All of these questions lead us to today’s blog post: can you go to prison if you’re pregnant?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • What is prison like if you’re pregnant?
  • What happens if you get pregnant in prison?

What is prison like if you’re pregnant?

First off, to directly answer the blog post question: Yes, you can go to prison if you’re pregnant. In fact, expectant mothers receive zero special treatment aside from a few small gestures. 

At the prison where I was incarcerated, pregnant inmates were guaranteed to be assigned a lower bunk or a “cadillac bed” so they didn’t have to climb onto the top bunk during their pregnancy. I’m pretty sure pregnant inmates also had a special diet with access to extra fruit and veggies while they were expecting.

When I was in county jail before being transferred to prison, the pregnant inmates were given “doubles” at chow time, which meant they got two trays because they were eating for two.

Other than that, I am not aware of any kind of special treatment for pregnant inmates.

According to NPR, there are more than 100,000 women currently incarcerated in the United States, which is a seven-fold increase since 1980. But, the state DOCs and the Federal Bureau of Prisons haven’t kept up with the health care needs of this huge rise in the number of female inmates.

In a recent study published in The American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin – an OB-GYN at John Hopkins School of Medicine – found that the kind of medical care pregnant inmates receive varies greatly.

“We know that there is a lot of variability in the kind of medical care that any incarcerated person, but especially a pregnant incarcerated person, receives,” said Sufrin. “Despite a constitutional mandate that prisons and all institutions of incarceration provide health care to people inside, there is no mandatory oversight that these institutions must follow. And so you get a wide range … of some places that are actually providing relatively good pregnancy care and others that are providing harmful, neglectful or absent pregnancy care.”

Once the prison confirms the pregnancy, the inmate has regular appointments with an OB at a hospital outside of the prison. When they are transported, the pregnant inmates will wear handcuffs and shackles. 

When an inmate goes into labor, they are transported to a hospital, so they can deliver – if there is enough time. There are plenty of stories about women giving birth inside their cell or somewhere on prison grounds.

When an inmate is in the delivery room, they are handcuffed to the bed. After they give birth, the inmate is allowed a few hours (anywhere from 4 to 48) with their newborn before they must hand the baby over to a friend or family member. If they don’t have anyone who can take care of the child, CPS will get involved.

The prison I was in was located near an Amish community, and some of the pregnant inmates had an Amish family take care of their baby while they were serving their sentences. Once they were released, the family would return the child to the mother, unless there was an agreement for the family to keep the child because the mom wasn’t able to take care of the baby.

Overall, the day-to-day life of a pregnant prison inmate isn’t much different from a regular inmate. They still have to go to school or work, and their freedom is taken away just as much as anyone else. The biggest difference is that they are regularly taken to the hospital outside of the prison for appointments.

One of the saddest things I witnessed in prison was a new mom returning from the hospital without her baby after giving birth. It was heartbreaking.

I should note that United States womens’ prisons are quite different from other countries when it comes to mothers in prison. I know that both Italy and Australia allow their pregnant inmates to keep their children with them after giving birth, and they provide a proper living space for the mother and child that does not have the appearance of a prison cell.

There are a handful of womens’ prisons in the US that are implementing programs for female inmates with young children, but the progress on this is extremely slow.

What happens if you get pregnant in prison?

If an inmate gets pregnant in prison, that’s a huge deal. Back in 2003, President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act  – commonly known as PREA – to help reduce the sexual assault and violence that takes place inside of women’s prisons. 

Before PREA, it was not all that uncommon for female inmates to be sexually assaulted by officers, and some of those women would get pregnant. Post-PREA, if an officer gets an inmate pregnant, that will cost him his job, and he will most likely be prosecuted for sexual assault.

As for the female inmate, she has the option of having an abortion, giving the baby up for adoption, or allowing temporary guardianship by a family member, friend, or CPS until their release.

Since nothing in prison is universal, I’m sure that how a prison handles an inmate who gets pregnant by an officer varies greatly. There were rumors at WERDCC about one girl who was sent to the hole after after her sexual relationship with an officer was discovered. 

However, a female inmate is considered a non-consensual victim because of PREA, so they aren’t punished too harshly. I looked for evidence of how this situation is handled to back up my assumption, but wasn’t able to find anything for certain in my research.

PREA hasn’t ended sexual assault in prison, not by a long shot. Both officers and inmates are committing sexual assault inside prisons every day. From my experience, it definitely reduced the instances of female inmates getting pregnant while behind bars. I knew of two officers who had inappropriate relations with an inmate, and both lost their jobs when it was discovered.

The prison also made it against the rules for a male officer to conduct a physical search on a female inmate, and male officers were not allowed to be alone with a female inmate  – especially in areas where the cameras couldn’t see them.  

The issue of pregnant inmates in prison is really a forgotten one. With the skyrocketing number of female inmates over the last four decades, the DOCs and the BOP have really fallen behind when it comes to prenatal care. Just one of the many things wrong with the prison system in the United States.

Should female inmates who give birth in prison be allowed to spend more time with their newborn, like they do in Australia and Italy? Let us know in the comments below.

Sources:  

Pregnant Behind Bars: What We Do and Don’t Know About Pregnancy and Incarceration

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/03/21/705587775/pregnant-behind-bars-what-we-do-and-dont-know-about-pregnancy-and-incarceration

What Happens When A Pregnant Woman Goes To Jail? You Might Be Surprised

http://www.birthbehindbars.com/blog/2015/3/20/what-happens-when-a-pregnant-woman-goes-to-jail-you-might-be-surprised

Babies and Toddlers Are Living With Their Mums In Prison. We Need To Look After Them Better

http://theconversation.com/babies-and-toddlers-are-living-with-their-mums-in-prison-we-need-to-look-after-them-better-117170

Pregnancy Outcomes In US Prisons

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305006

Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)

https://www.prearesourcecenter.org/about/prison-rape-elimination-act-prea

About the Author Natalie

Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.

>