10 Things You Didn’t Know About Pregnancy in Prison

prison cell
Image via Flickr/mikecogh

Imagine finding out you are pregnant, but instead of shopping excitedly for stretchy jeans and cute maternity outfits, you found yourself sporting a very different type of pregnancy style…

Stripes.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, between 6 and 10 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant; in one year alone, 1,400 women gave birth while incarcerated in the United States.

So just what exactly is it like to be a pregnant prisoner?

Let’s take a look…

Image via Flickr/DaquellaManera
Image via Flickr/DaquellaManera

1. Some may not even realize that they are pregnant.

Kebby Warner is a 25-year-old married prisoner in Michigan who was imprisoned for littering and passing a $350 stolen check. She writes, “My first month in prison was spent being sick. I was told by health care that my ‘illness’ was caused by stomach flu and that my other ‘symptoms’ were caused by stress. The day after I was released from quarantine, I was called to health care and informed that my ‘illness’ wasn’t stomach flu, but that I was pregnant. Putting the dates together I had conceived my baby the night before I was sentenced to prison.”

barbed wire prison
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2. They have to wear “belly chains.”

Warner, who has Type 1 diabetes, had to be treated at a local hospital during the duration of her high-risk pregnancy. Each time she left, she describes the “period of humiliation” she had to endure when she was strip-searched and placed in belly chains and handcuffs for the duration of each and every doctor’s appointment.

{ MORE:   Guide to Prenatal Appointments }

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3. There is a “pregnancy” unit in prison. 

Warner was moved to a special pregnancy unit of her prison, where about 20 other women were incarcerated. “It made me wonder of the cold-heartedness of the judges, who would send pregnant women to prison, when there are other alternatives to incarceration,” she writes. 

prison unit
Image via Flickr/GordonInc

4. They go through childbirth classes. 

Warner, who found out later in her pregnancy that she was actually expecting twins, took childbirth education classes with the rest of the pregnant prisoners. She explained that they had group therapy sessions in Parenting, Substance Abuse, Domestic Violence, Prenatal Care, Childbirth, and Postpartum. A childbirth educator also came to the hospital after delivery to check on the women.

pregnant-in-prison-5
Image via Flickr/koadmunkee

5. They have to labor alone. 

“During the labor, no one is allowed in the delivery room,” Warner writes. “My family didn’t even know I was in labor or had her until after I left the hospital.” In addition to being forced to labor without a support person present, Warner’s entire labor and delivery was also monitored the entire time by prison guards. 

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Image via Flickr/incognito2020

 6. They are handcuffed after giving birth. 

“Thirty minutes after giving birth, I was once again handcuffed and chained, and wheeled to another floor,” Warner wrote. Can you imagine trying to hold or nurse a baby with handcuffs and chains on? 

According to the website and movement Women in Prison, 46 states have no legislation that restricts the shackling of pregnant women in prisons, jails, and detention centers, leaving the practice to the discretion of individual facilities. Illinois, California, Vermont, and New Mexico prohibit it entirely,although, apparently, it still does occur. 

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Image via Flickr/mscaprikell

7. They have 24 hours with their baby. 

In most states, the law maintains that a woman with a vaginal birth must be out of the hospital at 24 hours after delivery. 

“I’ve seen the state of other women who have come back lost after giving birth,” Warner wrote. “In a total state of shock and confusion. One woman I know turned to pills, getting high by taking others’ psychotropic drugs. She walked around the unit like a zombie, trying to dull the pain from the separation of her child. One night she OD’d on these pills, was rushed to the hospital, lucky to have survived. She was then taken to segregation and placed on suicide watch. It was so hard seeing her like that. At that time I wondered how I would feel after I had to leave my baby. I used to lay on my bunk at night feeling her more, talking to her or reading a children’s book I found in the library. I couldn’t imagine the day I wouldn’t feel her more or couldn’t talk to her anymore. When that day came, I was desperate.”

Warner was so desperate to stay with her baby, in fact, that she refused to eat, a move that bought her three extra days with her baby. 

pregnant-in-prison-8
Image via Flickr/through my eyes

8. They can lose their baby.

Even if women in prison finish their time, they are at risk of losing their children if their time exceeds more than two years. After two years, most states maintain that a mother will lose all parental rights. 

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Image via Flickr/Rachel Coleman Finch

9. They can breastfeed.

Although it’s not very likely, it is possible for prisoners to breastfeed, if the prison is nearby the child’s place of residence and the fostering or adopting family is willing to cooperate by picking up frozen breast milk.

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10. They are more at risk for postpartum mental disorders.

The combination of being separated from their babies, the severe isolation, and the poor physical care during the pregnancy and postpartum periods place new mothers at an increased risk for mental disorders following birth, including postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.

What do you think? Should women who become pregnant or are already pregnant be forced to become prisoners or should other options be made available? 

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What do you think?

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Pregnancy in Prison

Chaunie Brusie is a coffee mug addict, a labor and delivery nurse turned freelance writer, and a young(ish) mom of four. She is the author of "Tiny Blue Lines: Preparing For Your Baby, Moving Forward In Faith, & Reclaiming Your Life In An Unplanned Pregnancy" and "The Moments That Made You A Mother". She also runs Passion Meets Practicality, a community of tips + inspiration for work-at-home mothers. ... More

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298 comments

  1. Profile photo of Kristin Kristin says:

    There needs to be an alternative. Some women end up in jail over stuff that does not even require jail time. And plus these are pregnant women. They NEED to have time with their children and they NEED proper prenatal/postnatal care. Living in a halfway house or on house arrest would be a much better alternative.

    • Profile photo of Kimberly Kimberly says:

      Perhaps if they do not want to have to deal with the hardships of being pregnant in prison, and being away from their children, they should have take the time to consider doing the right thing – for example, not being a criminal in the first place. These women end up in prison because they have done something to infringe on another person’s rights, and as a result, have no rights of their own any longer. Don’t want to go to prison? Don’t be a moron.

      • Profile photo of Hope Hope says:

        Not everyone in prison has infringed on another persons rights. Some of them are there simply because they have a preference of Cannabis over alcohol. They simply choose to indulge in the use of a harmless plant instead of the ‘legal’ alternative, which incidentally, not only causes thousands of deaths a year, but also contributes to spousal abuse, violence, murder and macho attitudes in general.

      • Profile photo of jej03 jej03 says:

        The woman in this particular case conceived *right* before being sentenced. Do you think she planned that? I have a strong suspicion that she did not, so not every case is the same, you need to keep that in mind.

        Additionally, as others have said, there are a lot of times in which the justice system isn’t really about ‘justice’ so much as it’s a cash cow for private prisons to get paid by the state, with people going to jail on little things (traffic tickets? Really? Hope you enjoy jail for your broken tail light!).

      • Profile photo of Jessica Jessica says:

        Except that a lot of these women could have had other options besides prison. Plus, some of these things are punishing the baby as much or more than the baby, ie not being able to form a bond, not being able to be breastfed other than expressed breastmilk if the family caring for it is willing to pick it up (and exclusive pumping is near impossible to maintain supply anyway). Yeah, going to prison is avoidable, but to not even tell someone they’re pregnant? Seriously? These women should still be treated like human beings.

  2. It’s prison. It’s not day camp or a halfway resort for moms to be. Yes, when an inmate is found to be pregnant there should be some kind of board convened to determine severity of conviction and possible alternative options. But that does not need to be the norm. You’re there to lose your rights and pay the debt you owe. Don’t want to be pregnant in jail? Don’t do stupid, criminal things. I realize mistakes are made in arrest and prosecution…but I doubt miraculously that most of the pregnant inmates fall into that category. If they start allowing house arrest, etc just for pregnancy…I see the number of pregnant inmates going up exponentially.

    • Profile photo of jennifer jennifer says:

      First off I seriously doubt the number of women getting pregnant would go up “exponentially” just to avoid jail/prison for house arrest.. House arrest is isn’t free like jail/prison, it’s very costly. Plus a lot of counties impose the max sentences, for stupid things(i.e having something as small as a roach, there husbands antibiotics being in there purse in the correct bottle as my case was the latter) . Even if it’s the person’s first offense. They don’t get any other options except prison or jail time.Wouldn’t you rather people that commit petty things like that on probation or house arrest?! Where they pay for the “crime” Instead of your hard earned money going to support them 100%? Therefor, if you feel they should “pay the debt they owe” shouldn’t they get the option of house arrest, as long as the crime they are convicted of isn’t of a serious harmful nature? Our justice system needs some serious revisement. When someone who rapes someone can get probation,(in the state I live in) but if u smoke some weed u go to jail/prison you’ve never hurt a single person..

  3. Profile photo of Jacqueline Jacqueline says:

    I do not think pregnant women should go to prison. I know first hand what these pregnant women are feeling. I am 7 months pregnant now. A week later after I found out I was pregnant, I was incarcerated for 2 months; for a crime I did not commit. I was in an unhealthy relationship with someone who was committing theft but because I was with him I was charged as well. When I told the detective I was pregnant he could of cared less! I sat in jail for 2 months being pregnant and it was just awful. And the only reason I was even released was because someone posted my bail, or I would have sat their for like 5 months. And no one in the “court system” cared that a pregnant woman was sitting in jail.

  4. Profile photo of Britnei Britnei says:

    and the hostipal when its time to give birth and also i don’t think a women should be without her child OMG!!! my daughtet is 6 months old and i’d go totally nuts without her!there would surely be a fight if someone took my baby

  5. Profile photo of Britnei Britnei says:

    except to go to a doctor for prenatel visits

  6. Profile photo of Britnei Britnei says:

    I think pregnant women should be under house arrest instead of prison

  7. Profile photo of Maria Maria says:

    This is a really iffy topic… there are so many different what ifs involved. What if the mother is in there for non-violent crimes, or what if the mother is in there just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or ended up taking the fall for someone else, like a friend of mine did. But then again, what if the mother is there because she was strung out on drugs. But at the same time, no matter what the mother is in prison for, they should have better care for pregnant mother in prison, maybe more of a half-way house type setup, but still with guards, etc. But as for after the birth, I dont know, once again, it’s an iffy topic. Maybe if the mother has less than 2 years left, let her keep the baby with her like some prisons have, but if its more than that then I dont know what to say, I know I wouldn’t be able to be separated from my baby. When my baby was born, the day I was supposed to take him home, they came and told me that he would have to be transported to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and stay there for an unknown amount of time, and I couldnt stay with him. That first night without him was horrible, even though I was still able to go see him a couple times a day. Then even though it seemed like it couldnt get any worse, every night just got harder and harder, until he finally got to come home 10 days later. If I had to give my baby up for good, there’s no way that I could have made it. No I dont by any means condone using drugs, but I can see why that mom did. I think the entire issue of pregnant women in prison needs an overhaul, and they need to come up with some kind of program or something for pregnant moms, and moms with newborns, in all prisons, not just a select few.

  8. Profile photo of Beth Beth says:

    I’m a bit confused. In photo #4 she says she found out she was expecting twins. In #5 and #7 she talks about “her”, meaning one girl. What about the other twin?

  9. Profile photo of Melissa Melissa says:

    First I must say I was an inmate in a CCA prison for over a year. I was convicted of some petty non violent crimes because of a relationship I chose. I was a career government employee prior to incarceration so I wasn’t just some prostitute or drug addict. I know first hand there were no childbirth classes, there were not options to breastfeed and there was not a pregnancy unit. Every lady was general population. The city I live in was recently a part of a huge case for handcuffing women while giving birth. So being pregnant in prison in Tennessee is not fun. Although I was not pregnant while there, I did get pregnant right afterwards. I would not wish anyone to be pregnant and incarcerated!! The women do not get treated well.

  10. Profile photo of anncrusch anncrusch says:

    A very high number of women in prison are there due to drug related crimes such as prostitution, theft and dealing. In those cases, an unborn child is much better off if his/her mother is in prison. I say that because there will be limited access to drugs ( I’m not naive enough to believe there are no drugs in prison), 3 meals a day, medical care, birthing classes and the child will be born in a medical facility. If mom is still on the street all strung out, none of these things would occur. In addition, the baby will have a better chance of being placed in a safe, supportive home (again, I’m not naive enough to think that always happens), rather than being raised by a drug-addicted prostitute, or worse, left in a dumpster. I know that sounds harsh, but that’s just how I see it.

    • Profile photo of jej03 jej03 says:

      A very high number? What is that number, exactly, or are you just saying it because that is what you believe to be true? Do your homework before spouting off things you don’t know about.

  11. There are programs in some state that allow these women to keep their baby for up to two year in a special prison unit.. To be in and remain in the program the woman must exhibit good behavior. A lot of women, do turn their lives around the minute they hold their child, and the one’s with a good intention should be allowed to hold their child through infancy. What do you think happens to these babies when their mother has to give them up in prison and immediate family isn’t willing or around to take on the responsibility? Regardless these babies are governed by the state. Of course the history of the mother should be taken in consideration, but its important to remember a good portion of inmates in prison are there for non-violent and/or unintentional offenses. If a women is in jail for the abuse of her other children, of course she should immediately loss the custody of her child, and in any normal situation CPS would be there to take a stand. As a proponent for community sentencing, I feel that the judges should consider the possibility of other sentencing. Not only for these women but all 1st time low-level violent and of course non-violent offenders should be taken in consideration for other forms of sentencing. The story here is sad, and shows a common behavior exhibited by women who lose their baby; she is more likely to partake in drug activities inside prison, she is more likely to commit suicide and of course she is less likely to care about he rehabilitation (corrections) meant for inside these walls.

  12. Profile photo of Brittany Brittany says:

    It’s not the judge that is heartless. Maybe the pregnant woman should think about their child before commiting a crime.

    • Profile photo of jej03 jej03 says:

      And maybe you shouldn’t assume you know everything. You clearly didn’t even read (or you skimmed past the important part) that the woman whose experience was being relayed in this story DID NOT KNOW SHE WAS PREGNANT. It’s EXTREMELY unlikely that she planned to get pregnant right before going to jail, FFS.

  13. Profile photo of Jamie Jamie says:

    I’m wondering why they can’t do house arrest for none violent crimes or perhaps a half-way house just for pregnant moms and new moms. It could be ran just like a jail yet still have a home feel for the babies.

  14. Profile photo of Lisa Lisa says:

    Here’s a thought

  15. Profile photo of ldmersman ldmersman says:

    I know they offer deferral programs. My step dad did it with his 2 girls. mom did her time first, then dad did his time once mom was released. during the deferral period they had to be under probation type terms. weekly check ins, UA’s etc. I think when it comes to pregnant woman, (especially with non-violent crimes) they should make it mandatory that the judge offers a suspended period for jail time until after the baby is born. Make them go through the probation dept. until Maybe 30 days after baby is born mom starts her sentence time…

  16. Profile photo of Grace Grace says:

    Right now I do not know of any other options for women who are in jail- it would be nice if there were, If they commit the crime they should do the time, as far as making them give up their babies after two years if they are still in jail completely unfair…

  17. Profile photo of Carissa13 Carissa13 says:

    I think that it is sad that a woman who is pregnant has to go to jail or prison. I know that the nurition and care that they get is not as good as if they were home saying that they were no doing anything to endanger thier life or that of the unborn child. However I do know that there are some prisons that have a program where the mother is not seperated from her child directly after birth and that the child can stay in the special unit made just for the women and children. The mothers also are given the chance to have a doula and become doula certified. Honestly it depends on the state and other things. But in general Washington State (for one) has a good program for incarcerated women.

  18. Profile photo of jesster131 jesster131 says:

    It’s a tough thing. But in the end it comes down to what was the crime & what is her past record. I could not imagine having to give up my son. But the saying is do the crime do the time. They baby should not have to pay for moms crime as well. They deserve a stable loving home to start life in & don’t deserve to be torn out of it just because it’s time 1-2 years later & moms out of jail now. Yes I know I sound cruel when I say it that way but I am thinking in terms of stability for that child. They will have formed a very strong bond with they family that has been raising them all that time.

  19. Profile photo of Diana Diana says:

    That is very sad. I could not imagine giving birth to baby whom i come to love so much for the past 9 month, and when i give birth not have him/her with me.

  20. Profile photo of nichole nichole says:

    its such a gray area, its hard to say for sure what they deserve or should go through, and what they shouldnt. i dont think its fair the father for one, to not let him be there for the birth of his child, expecially if he had nothing to do with what the mother did to end up in jail in the first place. if the mother has a violent crime against her, she shouldnt be allowed the child at all after its born. and she should be cuffed as much as possible. tho not while birthing itself. the two year mark, can seem a bit harsh, i mean, depending on what they did, why cant they have their kid after they get out. perhaps not immedietly, but be allowed to start a bond with the kid, and go through classes and such, and prove they can be a good mother and be allowed to have their kid back. having guards present in the room, again, should base off what they did to get there in the first place. i dont entierly feel bad for them while their going though it in prison tho, because if they made the decision to do what they did, its their fault. they have to deal with the consequenses….

  21. Profile photo of sylvia sylvia says:

    I would say it depend on the crime they committed, but I guess it doesn’t matter if you are in prison or not, it’s sad to seperate from your own blood.

  22. Profile photo of Rozie Rozie says:

    I think the amount of time giving to the mother and child should be fit to the crime. If the mother has a non-violent crime she should get her time as any mother taking the child home. Sad news this is!

  23. Profile photo of Kathi Kathi says:

    I’m in shock that this woman got so much jail time for what she did. Must have been election year for the DA. There should be alternatives for non violent crimes.

  24. Profile photo of Phammom Phammom says:

    Hard topic, I have mix feelings, depends on the crime. But am happy they can breast feed.

  25. Profile photo of Lovely Lovely says:

    It is sad to carry a child and be separated after the birth. I really do not know what to say about this, but if the woman is in prison she must have done something very bad and I wonder why she did not think about her actions so she did not have to get locked up because the reality is that its her fault she is separated. People can’t take certain things back and children do need their mothers and I don’t think a mother shouldn’t be granted custody of her child once leaving depending on why she was locked up and certain other factors. If a woman got in trouble for stealing why not let her have custody but if a woman got locked up for molesting another child then that’s different.

    • Profile photo of Hannah Hannah says:

      I think this is barbaric. This woman went through this for theft and littering? I am shocked that for all the violence in this world that this woman couldn’t have been given an opportunity to feel that motivation to turn her life around after taking the baby in her arms.. only a mom can understand those feelings and with support in a halfway home situation I bet they would have a high rate of success. Would save the State $ eventually too. Only the very worst offenders/flight risk should need to go through this, and endure this. Breastfeeding can be so hard – there’s no way I could have done it without complete freedom of movement. If you are pro life you should be for reforming this system, since presumably you take the best interests of every baby in the USA deeply to heart. What would Jesus do (for these women and babies?)

      • Profile photo of Morgan Hart Morgan Hart says:

        Let’s be real here. This woman’s story is the exception, not the rule. I agree with what someone commented earlier. If you are pregnant or possibly pregnant, perhaps you should consider how your actions might affect your child before you break the law. Most people in prison are there for a good reason. And the truth is that if DCS is any indication, women in a halfway house probably wouldn’t have a high rate of success. Look at how many kids are removed from their parents and never reunited because their parents can’t get it together. I am absolutely pro life. But causing a child to continue to suffer by leaving them with an unfit parent just because the mommy might be sad to lose her baby….give me a break. I can’t imagine someone taking my child from me hours after giving birth, but I also make choices that are in the best interest of my child-even before delivery.

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