Forced to Give Birth Alone: How Prisons and Jails Neglect Pregnant People Who Are Incarcerated

February 28, 2022

It was 5:00 AM when 26-year-old Diana Sanchez first told a deputy in Denver County Jail that she was going into labor. Instead of getting Diana, who was incarcerated, and her baby immediate medical attention, nurses and deputies at the jail decided to take a “wait and see” approach to their care. Hours pass as video footage from her cell shows Diana panicked and crying in agony as her labor progresses. Still, jail and medical staff did nothing. At 10:30 a.m. Diana screams and begs for help, but still, no one comes. At 10:44 a.m. her son is born, both of them alone.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Too many people share similar stories that reveal the utter lack of resources and preparations jails have for their pregnant incarcerated people. It is evident that more policy must be implemented and enforced to ensure that they receive appropriate prenatal care which is crucial for protecting the wellbeing of both the person giving birth and their child. 

 Studies show that that pregnant incarcerated women have higher rates of poor perinatal outcomes, such as miscarriage, preterm infants, and infants who are small for their gestational age, compared to women in the general population. This is likely due to the fact that several jails and state prisons do not have any implemented prenatal care policies. Based on data collected by the American Civil Liberty Union, 23 out of 50 state prison policies do not provide screening or treatment for high-risk pregnancies. This means that pregnant people who are at-risk for pre-eclampsia, struggling with substance abuse, or are HIV-positive do not receive appropriate treatment. Additionally, when the inevitable time comes to deliver her child only 26 out of 50 state prisons have codified arrangements for labor and delivery which leaves room for incidents such as Diana’s to happen again and again.

However, even when there is policy in place, this still does not ensure that pregnant people are actually receiving the care they need. In Diana’s case, the Denver County Jail did have a codified labor and delivery protocol. However, even with protocol in place, she was not provided any of the appropriate care she needed and still gave birth alone in a jail cell. In another instance, in 2017, a woman in a Florida county jail also gave birth alone despite screaming for help. And once again, this county jail had labor and delivery statutes in place, yet no care was given. At the national level, all U.S prisons and jails are required to provide prenatal care under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. However, there are currently no federal standards to ensure that pregnant people are actually receiving the care they need.  

To ensure the health of the pregnant person and their fetus, policies grounded in best practices, such as providing testing and treatment for people who have high-risk pregnancies, rehabilitative services for mothers struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, and requiring unshackled hospital arrangements for labor and delivery must be codified and enforced in jails and prisons. One way to enforce these policies is through the training of jail and prison personnel to recognize symptoms of common pregnancy emergencies, including labor, and alert medical staff or call 911. These staff are often the only vessel of communication pregnant inmates have and their actions can mean the difference between life or death for both the person giving birth and child. What cannot go on is the presumption that any incarcerated person claiming a medical emergency is “faking it”. When asked to describe her experience, Diana Sanchez said, “that pain [of labor] was indescribable. What hurt me more, though, was the fact that nobody cared.” To hear someone crying in agony from labor pains and do nothing is a result of apathy and neglect for the deserved treatment of incarcerated pregnant women. 

Implementing prenatal care policies is just one step toward comprehensive jail and prison reform as more evaluation and enforcement is needed to assure that equitable standards of care for pregnant incarcerated people are being met. Changes both inside and outside of jails must be made to safeguard the health of these individuals. On the inside, there must be a cultural shift to view this population as human because stories like Diana Sanchez’s are far too common and the long-term effects of inadequate healthcare has been shown to contribute to the collateral consequences of incarceration. On the outside, you can help pregnant incarcerated people by donating to organizations such as the Women’s Prison Association and The Sentencing Project that work to fight against the injustices incarcerated individuals face. The Sentencing Project also has state and local partners you can join to fight for comprehensive prison reform in your area to protect the human rights of pregnant incarcerated people.

Anna Roh is an MPH student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences.