Improving the Health and Wellbeing of Incarcerated Mothers

Incarcerated Mothers Full
Shandra Williams (left) speaks with Diane Wilson, co-founder of the Texas Jail Project. Wilson was inspired to create the project after meeting Shandra in jail and learning about her difficult pregnancy behind bars.
Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers.

Women coming into jail often are already experiencing high-risk pregnancies. But, like Williams, many expectant mothers receive limited to no medical care while behind bars, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. They may be shackled during their pregnancies, and even while giving birth. They may also be separated from their children soon after giving birth, preventing them from breastfeeding and denying them the many benefits medical experts have identified for both moms and newborns of skin-to-skin contact.

“A lot of places are not thinking about pregnant women,” says the Vera Institute of Justice’s Elizabeth Swavola, a program manager and co-author of the report Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform.

Researchers like Swavola note that there are best practices for jurisdictions interested in improving their care of pregnant women behind bars.

  • Ending the shackling of pregnant women. Twenty-eight states have laws prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women, though some only prohibit shackling during childbirth.
  • Ending the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women. Starting this October, Maryland will prohibit correctional facilities from placing pregnant women in isolation against their will. Georgia and Texas will also ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.
  • Ensuring pregnant women receive the medical care that they deserve. Last month, Cook County Jail—the largest single-site jail in the country—announced a $500,000 effort to offer medical care, drug treatment, and counseling for pregnant and postpartum women behind bars.
  • Providing nurseries that allow mothers to stay with their children after birth. The Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island in New York opened the first jail-based nursery in 1985 and now offers parenting classes and post-natal workshops for incarcerated women. Such nurseries allow mothers to breastfeed and help keep both moms and kids healthy during the recovery period after birth.

All of these strategies could dramatically improve the lives of pregnant women in custody. But Swavola says the best way to help pregnant women stay healthy is to keep them out of our nation’s jails and prisons in the first place.

In recent years, states like Oklahoma, Oregon, and Illinois have experimented with pretrial diversion programs aimed at keeping pregnant women out of jail while they’re waiting for their cases to resolve. And mother-focused legal services like I reported on last season for 70 Million could help women post bail and meet court requirements to stay out of jail. Free to see their doctors and get the support they need from family members, these women will have a much better chance at having the safe and healthy pregnancies they deserve.