Giving Birth in PA Prisons

A state senator moves to unshackle pregnant inmates.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 23 | Posted Jan. 19, 2010

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“The scars that circle Tina Torres’ ankle are a permanent reminder of giving birth behind bars, legs shackled together with her left wrist handcuffed to the gurney.”

The experience was a nightmare through and through: pregnancy, delivery and postpartum isolation. “The thing that was crazy to me was when I looked over and the CO was holding my baby, and I was just like, ‘wow.’ These are just things that I will never forget.”

Attempts to humanize the prison-industrial complex are often stymied by politicians and judges eager to look tough on crime.

“I think it’s under the radar because we as a society don’t care how we treat prisoners,” says state Sen. Leach. But so far, there’s been no sign of overt opposition to the anti-shackling legislation. Advocates credit Senator Leach, who hopes the legislation will pass the Judiciary Committee by late January, for reaching out to potential opponents, including the prison-guard and warden associations. “We’re really happy with the Pennsylvania legislation,” says Kathleen Creamer, a staff attorney in the family advocacy unit at Community Legal Services. “It’s actually more comprehensive than the Philly policy,” since it would also bar shackling during transport to the hospital.

The persistence of shackling owes less to active political support for the policy than to our society’s general impassivity when it comes to recognizing prisoners’ humanity. But reformers have captured the momentum, and the status quo is showing signs of strain. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service banned shackling in October 2008, and New York followed suit in August 2009. And in October 2009, the conservative Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the shackling of women during labor to be, under most circumstances, a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“There are so many mothers out there,” says Creamer. “It’s something that’s inherently relatable.”

Reform couldn’t come at a better time. Across the country, the number of women (114,852) in jail has exploded, even outpacing the still-prodigious growth in the number of male inmates (1,495,594). According to Bureau of Justice statistics, the female prison population has grown at an average rate of 3 percent per year, compared to 1.9 percent for men. While the one-size-fits-all correctional model is a demonstrable failure across the board, it clearly impacts pregnant women in a particularly grave manner. Before MOMobile set up shop, pregnant women fell through the system’s cracks. “The social workers were doing the best they could,” says Williams, “but these women’s needs weren’t being met.” Pregnancy was treated like any other medical emergency, and a single social worker could have a caseload of over 100 prisoners.

Torres says pregnant women receive little special treatment in prison. If anything, they are vilified as drug addicts who callously put their own children at risk. “They come in pregnant off the street, they’re abusing drugs and are prostitutes a lot of the time,” says Torres, who asserts that she did not use drugs while pregnant. Doctors and nurses looked down on her, assuming the worst. “Another woman sees that and she’s, like, ‘You’re not an individual, you’re just some basehead, dopehead pregnant girl that was prostituting herself, got locked up, and you don’t care about your baby, so why should we?’ That’s how it is.”

Behind bars, Torres had to figure out how to stick up for her unborn child, and apparently made a name for herself reminding guards about her special needs.

“I’m sure the women from MOMobile told you I always started a little trouble in there,” she says, allowing a mischievous smile.

While things have improved for pregnant inmates, doulas are often the only advocates these women have.

Danyell Williams sleeps with her cell phone like a doctor with her omnipresent pager. The 37-year-old Philadelphia native and her three staff members—all trained doulas—are each on call for two weeks every other month, rushing to the hospital when they get word of an impending birth. Over last year’s Fourth of July weekend, Williams worked through 23 sleepless hours of labor.

MOMobile’s program at Riverside is groundbreaking. “We’re one of the only ones in the country,” says Williams. Since the beginning of the doula program in November 2006, MOMobile has attended 42 births.

The doulas are the only intimate human contact that jailed women have while giving birth. “When you’re incarcerated, the only people allowed in are security staff and MOMobile,” says Williams. “We had a woman whose child died during birth. She couldn’t call her husband. He couldn’t talk to his wife.”

The Maternity Care Coalition is well known throughout Philadelphia thanks to the ubiquitous MOMobile vans that criss-cross city streets, bringing prenatal care and parenting support to poor neighborhoods.

“They’re pretty colorful now,” says Williams. “They look like Scooby-Doo vans.”

The Philadelphia region has lost 15 labor and delivery units since 1999, so pregnant women at Riverside are just one link in a beleaguered maternity-care system that MOMobile scrambles to care for. They offer prisoners nine prenatal and seven postpartum classes—Williams dubs the former “What to expect when expecting when incarcerated.”

“Like nutrition: what do you do when you’re not in control of what you eat? You just have the cafeteria and commissary, which is like prison 7-Eleven.” Williams says that “Chi-Chis,” a prison delicacy comprised of ramen noodles cooked with boiling water in a bag of cheese curls with Slim Jims, are a particularly malign influence. “We found our clients were eating four or five bowls of this a day—and they were just blowing up.”

It’s no surprise that Torres is a rabble-rouser: the system needs to be humanized, and far fewer people should be locked up to begin with. Kathleen Creamer of Community Legal Services says her priority is to reduce the number of pregnant women in prison, since most prisoners at Riverside are either being held in pretrial detention or serving short sentences for minor crimes. Keeping pregnant women out of prison is in the city’s economic interest, too. If a poor woman gives birth in custody, the city covers the medical bills. If she gives birth on the outside, Medicaid picks up the tab. According to Philadelphia Prison System spokesperson Robert Eskind, Commissioner Giorla is exploring ways to help pregnant offenders stay in the community.

And for many prisoners, pregnancy is just the beginning of a long struggle to be mom from behind bars. Of the more than 65,000 incarcerated women who are mothers, many are the primary caregiver for their children. These millions of children with incarcerated parents are more likely to suffer physical and emotional health problems, struggle in school and, one day, end up in prison themselves. Some children disappear into DHS’ bureaucratic maw, a notoriously difficult situation to extricate a family from. Danyell Williams of MOMobile is particularly exasperated with Temple University Hospital, which insists on contacting DHS every time a prisoner gives birth, even though there is no law requiring they do so.

Creamer says women need more access to their children. “Nurseries would be amazing,” she says, although conceding that the city is wary of spending money on prisoners in the midst of a budget crisis. “What I’m hearing from everyone is that anything with a dollar sign is not going to happen,” she says. “But we can also increase visitations and make conditions for visiting more family-friendly.”

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Comments 1 - 23 of 23
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1. CJ said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 11:33PM

“Ummmm, don't get pregnant before you're about to goto prison dummies. Screw them and this out-of-touch senator.”

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2. Kate said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 08:19AM

“Gee CJ, such compassion! Such a nuanced and well thought-out position! Did you actually read the whole story, where it was mentioned that the charge against her was dropped (after eight months in custody), or did your lips get tired?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 05:17PM

“That is cruel and inhumane! I can't imagine what the rationale is for shackling a woman giving birth to a baby. Do they really think they can run and get far if they are in labor? Obviously these are rules created by MEN!!!!!!!!!”

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4. Zoe said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 08:38PM

“That is INSANE what they did to her! I'm appalled that in 2010, in the USA, that this is happening. It seems like some sort of medieval torture. There is no reason that this should happen to a birthing woman, whether she has commited a crime or whether her charges were dropped. It is unsafe and unethical. I hope she sues for damages and gets awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars and that she persues her dream of becoming a nurse.”

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5. Zoe2 said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 09:05PM

“....and not to mention the fact that they didn't give her prenatal care in jail.....nor did they give her the proper nutrition for a healthy baby....and they subjected her in internal searches during her ninth month??? Are they crazy? It's amazing her baby even came out alive. Shackled......and she was incarcerated for a NON VIOLENT crime. WTF??? I hope she gets a millions bucks after her lawsuit.”

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6. Bette Begleiter said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 08:10AM

“Daniel Denvir’s article brings important attention to an often ignored population - pregnant incarcerated women. While highlighting some problems that have occurred, what is left out is the story of the many improvements that have taken place. Maternity Care Coalition’s MOMobile® program was welcomed by Commissioner Louis Giorla and the PPS and we have worked collaboratively to improve conditions for pregnant and newly parenting women. Most significantly, it is now routine practice (and has been for some time) that women in active labor are not shackled. In addition, after meeting with us, nutritional choices for pregnant women improved and we worked together to let women know that there are healthy options at the prison commissary. Finally, with a new obstetrician and nurses at Riverside, pregnant women’s healthcare has improved. Our program has had tremendous support from Commissioner Giorla and is a model of a public/private partnership working to improve services and support.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 12:20PM

“I agree with CJ. This is prison, not a resort or spa. Think about the welfare of your unborn child before you decide to commit any sort of crime. It's unfortunate that this happened to her but cry me a river.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 11:44PM

“Well she is my sister and she is no drug user nor is she a prostitute....For the one who has NEVER Sinned..Please feel free to cast the first stone! Sometimes your just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's the rule that you pay for your actions, but don't you think being pregnant in prison was punishment in itself?? The shackling during labor and delivery was just over doing it! Thank you Lord that my niece is healthy..Some people miss the point....That it's not alway's about the"PLACE" it's about the "PEOPLE"!!! It could have been anyone's family member. No one plans a pregnancy with prison being part of the plan...”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 10:03AM

“I was astounded to read that pregnant women in labor are shackled. This is a clearly cruel and inhumane practice that has no place in our society. The officials responsible should be subject to disciplinary action. I applaud Senator Leach for taking steps to assure this practice is illegal.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 11:36AM

“Regardless of the crimes they've committed (or did not commit, in this case), every prisoner deserves to be treated humanely, and no woman should be subjected to the torture of heavy chains while pregnant. And regardless of your opinion of the mother, no would would disagree that the baby is innocent, and deserves both prenatal care and a safe birth.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 12:19PM

“17 hours in labor is already an ordeal, but delivering a child in shackles is something that no human being deserves. Kudos to Torres for her bravery and persistence in the face of the overwhelming obdurateness of the prison system. I'm glad to hear your baby is healthy and well.”

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12. Ray said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 12:25PM

“I Think we should have more love for one another than such unhamine jest or negetive thoughts that does not allow us to do unto others as we would like it to be done to us! Yes laws are put in place for those that do not know how, or want to control themseleves. In causes for minor and sometimes major punishment, but so sad that they had to carry a situation like this to this extent. I thank God and applaud Senator Leach for taking steps to band this type of practice as well. Love will cover a multitude of sin america.”

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13. Regina Jordan said... on Jan 25, 2010 at 03:37PM

“Everyone past the age of 12, Know right from wrong. When will people take responsibility for the chioces that they make before they open up their legs and commit a crime and then end up in prison expecting the public to have any kind of sympathy for their current situation.”

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14. Melissa, L&D RN said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 04:50AM

“1. She didn't commit a crime; the charges were dropped. She was awaiting trial when her baby was born. Google innocent until proven guilty and make sure you have your facts straight before you get on your high and mighty responsibility horse.
2. This isn't just an issue of her comfort during labor and delivery; shackling in labor, in addition to being cruel and inhumane, is potentially dangerous. Sometimes laboring women need to change positions quickly to get oxygen to their babies more effectively. Plus, she has scars on her ankles. Infection risk, anybody? Bueller?
3. This isn't just about shackling. You cannot tell if water is broken by visual exam alone. That prison nurse, if the article is accurate, was negligent, and she put both mom and baby at risk. That's not okay; I don't care if the mom's a murderer.
5. If you can't see yourself or a loved one in a similar situation you're a moron. She was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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15. Tina Torres said... on Jan 28, 2010 at 04:18PM

“First of all I want to thank everyone for their opinions both good and STUPID:P As they will both contribute to my growth and my fight against this barbaric shit that's happening to women right here in the U.S of A. And thank you Danielle, you're awesome. And for the losers that think that it's just for any woman to experience that. You're the reason, minds like yours, is why our government has gotten away with so much screwed up shit. Any stress that I was put under affected my baby you dorks. And guess what!!? I'm awesome! And real soon, it will be against the law to do this to any woman no matter the crime. Because of people like me and Senator Leach, people who realize we leave in a civilized society. That we walk on two legs, not four.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 2, 2010 at 01:23PM

“They only shackle one leg you bleeding hearts. By the way it's a jail not a joke! I hope she got the bill for the services.”

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17. Demia said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 04:39PM

“I agree with Torres totally and completely. Anonymous you say that jail is not a joke but what if you are arrested for too many tickets and not for murder would it seem right to be shackled while giving birth then. We are not animals and we do not deserve to be treated like we are. Not being able to hold your baby freely after giving birth is a horrible position to be in. Think about it, if this was your mother, your aunt, or your sister would you still feel that shackling during child birth is still right? Shackling while giving birth is asolutely absurd and it should be stopped.”

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18. Melissa L&D RN said... on Feb 4, 2010 at 07:25PM

“Oh, they only shackle one leg?

First of all, citation?

Second of all, well I guess that makes the scars on that one leg and her inability to change position independently okay then.

Third, at least I have a heart.

Fourth, she was never charged with anything. And even if she was, the constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, and anything that compromises one's health is cruel and unusual. Safe, competent medical care is a human right.

Keep fighting this Tina. You are brave and you are strong.”

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19. said... on Mar 9, 2010 at 03:41AM

“Ok obviously this woman made some poor decisions, she was associating herself with the wrong people. Does that make it ok to give her shitty medical care, or put an innocent child at risk? NO I cant believe this is happening. I have been to jail (although i did not give birth there) and been pregnant. Someone needs to do something about the medical systems in jails and prisons, and just to let everyone know i had alot of medical bills after i got out! You have to pay over $300 dollars a month to be housed in our jail plus all of the medical bills. Its quite overwhelming to someone who just got out with no job and no money! I hope this woman has sued because she WILL get PAID!! And I hope her child and her have a very happy very prosperous life...Once again im disgusted and sickened!GOOD LUCK TINA!!!!!!!!!!”

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20. Anonymous said... on Nov 21, 2010 at 10:43AM

“The children of these inmates deserve for the mother to get good prenatal care so they are born healthy. They are innocent no matter what their mothers have or have not done. The shackling during labor is completely unncessary and medically dangerous. I can see guarding the room, they are in prison after all. I must say the idea of an in house nursery in prison is ridiculous though and I hope that never comes to pass. Give the children to family to be taken care of until mom gets out.”

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21. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2011 at 11:23PM

“@CJ and "Anonymous"-

First off, most people don't plan to go to prison. Secondly, most pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. These women most likely come from poor neighborhoods where, aside from having jobs (most likely paying minimum wage with no benefits), they find that they need to engage in illegal behavior in order to put food on the table. Or maybe their partners are involved in illegal behavior and these women have to help or they become victims of domestic violence because their partners are violent.

Furthermore, it is likely that these women do not have health insurance or access to birth control or even an OB/GYN. They also probably went to a poor school where there was little or no or abstinence-only sex education. Or maybe their partner rapes them. Or maybe they were raped by a stranger and that's how they became pregnant.

In other words, don't say ignorant things about something that you know nothing about.”

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22. Anonymous said... on Nov 23, 2011 at 04:57PM

“I realize that people make mistakes and really think this was cruel. I do have one question did she know about the drugs? I can understand that the charges were dropped which only means that they couldn't prove that she had anything to do with them. My question is did they actually find any drugs there and did she know about them? If the answer is yes then her biggest mistake was being there when she was pregnant, obviously she now knows that was a mistake and I only hope that she doesn't associate with those people anymore. What the prison did was cruel but if she knew and was there anyways then she did deserve to be in jail, as that is putting her unborn child at risk. I actually knew someone who had her kids taken away because she was at someone's house who had drugs in their house and she did not know. She was charged with child endangerment and lost custody AND SHE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW.”

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23. Poppy said... on Jan 14, 2015 at 07:15PM

“It is SO important that inmates are given the proper care throughout their pregnancies! I feel like this is an issue that isn't addressed anywhere near enough. Just because someone has broken a law doesn't dismiss them as a person and it doesn't mean they don't deserve proper childcare. Children shouldn't be punished for their parent's poor choices and not having been properly cared for before they are born can negatively effect the children when they're born. Great post.”


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