A state senator moves to unshackle pregnant inmates.
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.”
Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware/Montgomery) expressed gratitude that his bill to prevent the shackling of pregnant prisoners was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee at a committee meeting today.
Turns out that Daniel Denvir's PW article about efforts to prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners in Pennsylvania helped push the bill through the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee this week.