Pregnant Behind Bars: How Expectant Mothers’ Lives are Under Threat

Imagine being pregnant and hungry. Always hungry. Now imagine being hungry and locked in a room, unable to access food, for eight to 12 hours.

Imagine opening a carton of milk and being hit in the face with a rancid smell that makes your stomach turn. Now imagine that that is the only carton of milk you’re allowed to have with that meal.

As part of a six-month investigation for In These Times, I interviewed women who had been pregnant while incarcerated. These scenarios are some of the realities they faced.

Providing adequate food should be a basic responsibility of correctional facilities. But jails and prisons fail at this, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of pregnant women. If they can’t fulfill the basic obligation to provide adequate and nutritious food to expectant mothers, it begs the question: Is it ever possible for a woman to have a safe and healthy pregnancy behind bars? After listening to a dozen women share their stories, the answer is no.

Across the country, women have reported difficulty accessing food while pregnant. Doctors, midwives and pregnancy guides typically recommend that pregnant women eat three or more servings of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein each day, as well as several servings of whole grain breads or other complex carbohydrates. But the women interviewed charged that their meals were far below these recommendations. And hunger was a recurring complaint. “It hurts to be hungry like that,” said Kandyce, summing up the sentiment of nearly every woman who shared her story with me.

Sometimes jails and prisons make special arrangements for pregnant women, but even then women report that these foods are often inadequate. For instance, in Phoenix’s Maricopa County Jail, the country’s third largest jail complex, the typical lunch is a hoagie roll, peanut butter, one pack of ginger snaps, an orange, a container of milk and a packet of jelly. Pregnant women receive the same meal with a few small changes—they are given an extra serving of milk and an additional orange. The kitchen may substitute two ounces of cheese or two boiled eggs for peanut butter. But they’re still just getting a sandwich, a pack of cookies, fruit and two containers of milk. If they are still hungry and don’t have money to buy snacks from the commissary (or jail store), then they just have to wait for dinner.

Meal schedules in jails and prisons often exacerbate hunger. Kandyce, who is currently imprisoned, told me about the 12-hour wait between dinner and breakfast. Although she received a pregnancy snack—an extra graham cracker, peanut butter and powdered milk—she still recalled, “I don’t think I was ever that hungry [outside of jail].”

Some jails and prisons do not routinely offer special pregnancy meals. Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration, but a pregnant woman is only given a special meal if a medical professional orders her a special diet. Michelle, who gave birth while in prison, remembered constantly feeling hungry, even after she ate. She did receive a pregnancy snack, which she described as a cracker and “maybe an orange.” She was served milk with breakfast but that meant going to breakfast, which was at 5 am, to get that milk. On the mornings she was taken to a hospital outside the prison for prenatal visits, she risked missing breakfast. “Sometimes we did [get breakfast before we left],” she said. Other times, she had to make do with a couple of hard biscuits.

Why should we care about the treatment of pregnant women behind bars? Some may argue that women who broke the law should deal with the consequences—and if those consequences include a lack of adequate and nutritious foods during their pregnancy, so be it.

But not receiving adequate nutrition during pregnancy is not simply a cosmetic issue. It’s a health issue that can have long-term (and possibly fatal) ramifications for both mother and fetus. Tess Timoney, a certified nurse-midwife and director of Women’s HIV Services at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, notes that a lack of proper nutrition can lead to increased risk of diabetes during pregnancy as well as later in life for both mother and child. Diets high in fat and salt can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to preeclampsia, which can lead to serious, if not fatal, complications for mother and baby. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby, which can be dangerous early in the pregnancy. “Withholding healthy food from a pregnant woman is withholding medical care,” she told me.

Access to adequate and nutritious food was only one of the challenges pregnant women faced behind bars. It seems like a simple enough issue to address, yet again and again, jails and prisons fail to do so. If they aren’t able to provide food, then we should not be shocked when they fail to provide appropriate medical care or fulfill other needs.

But what if we took a different approach when a pregnant woman is arrested? What if the default isn’t locking them up? What if women—pregnant, parenting or otherwise—were given the resources and support that they and their families need to survive and thrive?

Two programs in New York City—Drew House and Justice Home—are doing that now. Both are run by nonprofit organizations independent of the city jail and state prison system. One provides housing for women and their families, and the other allows women to stay in their own homes. Neither locks women in their homes, allowing them to fulfill their parental responsibilities, such as grocery shopping, taking their children to school and cooking dinner for the family. At the same time, they participate in programs and access resources to address the factors that got them entangled in the legal system and help them stay out. When they have completed the program, the felonies are removed from their record and they and their families are better positioned to survive and thrive.

What if, instead of using incarceration as a default, we made this kind of support available to people everywhere?

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Photo via Shutterstock


Victoria Law is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. She has written extensively about incarceration, gender and resistance for various news outlets.