There are mountains of evidence to suggest that correctional facilities are not the place where one wants to experience a medical crisis. At best, correction officers are ill-equipped to handle inmates with special health needs; at worst, they wield those needs like a cudgel against the inmate, often withholding treatments and medication as a form of punishment. So what happens when a pregnant woman enters the system? Nothing good.
Pregnant women — yes, even incarcerated pregnant women — require prenatal care to increase their odds of giving birth to healthy babies. But women being held at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail, are largely not getting the care they need, prompting concern from advocacy groups and even federal judges.
According to a story in the New York Times, the MDC is a special hell for women generally, and pregnant women in particular. A brief visit by the National Association of Women Judges in 2016 found conditions in the jail “unconscionable,” completely lacking in light, fresh air or any outdoor time for the women housed there.
One woman, a 26-year-old named Jamie, told the Times that she was denied basic rights when she was pregnant and incarcerated at MDC last year. Her vitamins were confiscated, and, at eight months pregnant, she was not allowed to remain in bed during inmate count.
“I told her I was dizzy,” she said. She said the officer replied, “You’re not dying, you’re just pregnant. Get up.”
Another woman, Stephanie Jorge, was allegedly similarly neglected during her pregnancy. During a bout of hemorrhaging, she was denied access to the hospital until three officers were summoned, the number required to adequately guard her at eight months pregnant. Those arrangements took up to two hours. Once at the hospital, doctors instructed her to rest and avoid exertion, a directive that was summarily ignored once back on the jail’s grounds, where she was asked to strip, squat, and cough, worsening her bleeding.
“I started to not care about my pregnancy, because no one else cared,” she told the Times.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, New York is one of a handful of states that now prohibits jails from shackling women as they give birth, which seems like a pretty low bar at which to set the standard for humane treatment. On a countrywide ranking put forth by the NWLC and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, New York was given a “C” grade for prenatal care, since its jails and prisons fail to screen for high-risk pregnancies, nor do they offer prenatal nutrition counseling or alter meals to accommodate pregnant women.
As one federal judge put it, conditions at MDC more closely resemble “a prison in Turkey or some third-world country” than a federal prison in the United States. Nationally, an estimated one in 25 female inmates is pregnant when she enters jail or prison.
While some states are more progressive when it comes to care for pregnant inmates, horror stories abound. Last year, a 27-year-old Michigan woman was arrested for driving with a suspended license while she was eight months pregnant. Unable to post her $10,000 bail, she was held in county jail, where she went into labor while awaiting her court date.
Instead of going to the hospital, guards forced her to give birth directly onto the jail’s floor. The county’s sheriff later defended the guards, saying that it was impossible to have known that the baby was coming right then, despite the woman’s multiple complaints about labor pains.
“I was called a liar and told to knock my crap off or they could put another charge on me,” she told a local news station.
The Michigan woman’s baby was born healthy, but many aren’t so lucky. As one fellow inmate told Jorge following her ordeal, ‘There was a girl who lost her baby in here and you better hope that doesn’t happen to you,” she told the Times.
The Justice Department is currently reviewing the federal Bureau of Prisons’ “management of its female inmate population,” though it appears no changes in policy have yet been made.