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Are Jails Prepared for Pregnancies?

Pregnancy is an important time in a woman’s life, and no woman wants to spend that time incarcerated. While jail may be an unfortunate and temporary circumstance, the impact can be life-altering for mothers and their newborns.

Pregnant Prisoners

More women are being incarcerated now than in years past, with more women in jails than in state prisons. Anywhere from 5-10% of incarcerated women are estimated to be pregnant, and many feel like they aren’t receiving the care they need.

Feeling invisible or disconnected, many are unable to navigate the challenges of pregnancy in a place largely designed for men. And instead of planning for baby showers and attending prenatal visits, mothers find themselves struggling in a system not equipped to meet their basic prenatal needs.

  • Pregnant inmates have almost 3 times the risk of receiving poor prenatal care
  • Newborns have a 60% greater chance of having a low birthweight
  • Premature births and C-sections occur more frequently

Jail policies can be hard to understand, or fail to meet the needs of pregnant inmates. Prenatal medical care, nutrition and other services are also hard to access.  For those unlucky enough to give birth while still in jail, they may be separated from, or spend very little time with their baby after giving birth.

In 2021, Minnesota was the first state to pass legislation allowing mothers to spend some time with their newborns outside of prison.

Some states like Washington and Indiana have nurseries or mother-baby units for newborns and their mothers, but this is still pretty uncommon.

Most mothers will be separated from their newborn within a few hours or days after giving birth.

Pregnancy in jail is even worse

Pregnancy in jail can be a very different experience than pregnancy in a state or federal prison.

Most pregnant inmates will be released prior to giving birth since average jail terms are less than a year. But the temporary nature of a jail sentence is often at odds with the longer duration of a pregnancy. Mothers have to live with the consequences of poor prenatal care for both them and their baby.

Each jail is unique and follows a different set of local policies. This means it is harder to standardize the care that pregnant inmates receive. Compared to state prisons, once arrested and booked in jail:

  • Less than half of pregnant women receive an obstetric exam (as opposed to 94% in state prisons)
  • Only a third received other pregnancy care (as opposed to 54% in state prisons)
  • Many local jails also still shackle pregnant women at times, or place them in solitary confinement. Many state and federal prisons have policies against these practices

A jail sentence should not mean basic healthcare rights for a mother or her baby are denied. Jails have a responsibility for the health and welfare of pregnant mothers, and need to be prepared to do better.

For more information on the challenges pregnant inmates face, see our article on Pregnancy Problems in Jail. And if you or a loved one has suffered life-changing effects from pregnancy while in jail, consider reaching out to one of our experienced attorneys.

Written By: author image Allison Kunerth
author image Allison Kunerth
Allison Kunerth, Ph.D. earned her Ph.D. in Public Health Studies at Saint Louis University. She also earned a P.S.M. in Biology at Illinois Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in Biosecurity and and Disaster Preparedness at Saint Louis University. Doctor Kunerth earned a B.S. in General Science at University of Oregon. Doctor Kunerth has worked as a writer, data analyst, communicable disease planner, program analyst, and laboratory technician. She has served in the military since 2010, currently serving as a Medical Service Corps Officer, with the rank of Captain, in the United States Army Reserve. Doctor Kunerth has published extensively, being either the primary or contributing author to approximately fifteen journal publications. Doctor Kunerth has also been the primary or co-presenter for approximately fourteen poster presentations. She has worked with the Lane County Public Health Advisory Committee, International Society of Disease Surveillance, and Saint Louis Regional Radiological Response Medical Reserve Corps.