Pregnant and imprisoned: The crisis thousands of women are facing
By Kaitlin Owens and Emily Mooney
Originally published in TheHill
Imagine you are a white-collar offender, who has just been arrested. As you wait for your trial, in prison, you find out you’re pregnant. Plagued with the reality that there are no perfect options for bringing your child into the world, you start to panic.
Several months later, you carefully walk to the van that will transport you to court. The weight of restraints on your waists, wrists, and ankles makes it difficult to walk. As you climb into the van, you misstep, causing you to fall on your stomach. A few days later, you find streaks of blood on your undergarments. You seek medical attention immediately but are denied. You are then told by the medical staff that they are not equipped with the right medical supplies to treat pregnant inmates, such as yourself.
One day, you suddenly feel wet and cry out for help. Hours later, the correctional staff finally responds, and you are taken to the hospital where you are shackled to a bed, writhing in pain. An ultrasound reveals you’ve miscarried. Wanting to confirm this, a nurse asks about the location of your bed linens. The correctional officers with you respond that they’ve thrown the linens — holding the small body of your unborn child — in the trash.
But this is no fictional scenario; this is Pamela Winn’s story.
The frightening reality is that thousands of pregnant incarcerated women, in America today, are put through similar circumstances. Survey data from the early 2000s revealed that 3 to 5 percent of incarcerated women in America were pregnant at the time of their admission, with more women that become pregnant while in prison. Although data is lacking, estimates suggest that between 1,400-2,000 women give birth while incarcerated each year.
These statistics suggest a heightened need for specific policies that address feminine issues, such as dealing with the health of a pregnant mother and child. Yet presently, most state and federal facilities make no accommodation for treating pregnant females as they would any other prisoner. Only 22 states and the District of Columbia have restricted shackling of pregnant inmates and in a lot of cases, we see these restrictions often ignored.
No pregnant inmate should be shackled, without evidence that she is a flight risk or is likely to harm her baby, herself, or others. According to the American Medical Association, shackling a pregnant woman carries it the risk of injury to both her and the unborn child because it restricts maternal and fetal movement and can interfere with medical evaluations and swift care.
More recent research has found that correctional facilities fail to provide physician-recommended standards of care for pregnant women, placing the health of both the mother and child at risk. Ignoring health standards and failing to provide needed care, such as in Pamela’s case, is not maintaining security – it’s knowingly inflicting harm.
This week, Congresswomen Mia Love (R-Utah) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to end this degradation of humanity in federal prisons and to protect the dignity to mothers and their unborn children. The Protecting the Health and Wellness of Women in Custody Act mandates the collection of data on incarcerated pregnant women in the United States and would end the cruel practice of shackling pregnant women incarcerated in federal facilities. Yet even if passed, similar state measures are still needed to truly eliminate the practice of shackling pregnant women.
The birth of a child is a special moment to be celebrated — this should be true even for women behind bars. Yet current policies humiliate and endanger incarcerated mothers and their unborn children, risking the health of American citizens and the generation to come. If we are genuinely seeking rehabilitation for these women, we must ensure they receive quality care for themselves and the innocent children they are carrying.
Emily Mooney (@EmilymMooney) is a criminal justice policy associate for the R Street Institute. Kaitlin Owens (@Kaitlin__Owens) is a policy analyst at the American Conservative Union Foundation.