Opinion

The daily horrors of the jailhouse birth

Women give birth in American jails every day. What happens to them is a national disgrace.

Diana Sanchez gave birth to her son alone in a jail cell in Denver.

In county custody at eight months pregnant for a probation violation following a nonviolent offense, Sanchez told jail staff "at least eight times," the lawsuit she has filed alleges, that she was in labor. She let them know she'd been experiencing contractions and her water broke. They did not provide her with medical care.

Instead, they monitored her remotely via video feed. And as that recording shows, Sanchez was left to labor by herself for hours, screaming in pain on a narrow bunk. Someone briefly enters before the baby is born. An absorbent pad is pushed under the door for Sanchez to collect the fluids of birth. After her son enters the world, a nurse finally appears. Yet even then, the lawsuit says, no one "took any steps to provide necessary care to address risk factors to Baby J.S.M. associated with Ms. Sanchez's use of prescribed methadone or other high-risk prenatal issues," behavior that "was not just negligent, [but] deliberately indifferent to his obvious, serious medical needs."

Sanchez's story has made headlines for its sheer horror — and perhaps because it resonates with our national attention, caught by the plight of migrant families at the southern border, to the ethics of making children suffer for the deeds of their parents. But her case is hardly unique. In fact, we have a steady stream of similar stories of women birthing alone or inadequately assisted, sometimes still confined by shackles or other restraints, in carceral facilities across the United States. America's jailhouse births are a national disgrace.

Consider a few of these accounts, like the case of Tammy Jackson, who was forced to give birth to her daughter in an isolation cell in Broward County, Florida. Jackson is diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia, and she was in pre-trial detention for drug charges when she went into labor in the early hours of the morning. Six hours later, she delivered her baby alone and on the floor. "It was horrifying," Jackson said of her delivery. "When [the baby] fell, I had to bend down to pick her up and tell her, ‘I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen.' She was still crying."

Jessica Preston allegedly begged deputies for help when she went into labor in jail in Macomb County, Michigan. Her lawsuit said she was promised she would not give birth behind bars, but jail staff insisted she was faking her pre-term labor while she awaited sentencing for driving with a suspended license. Though medical help was finally summoned, it came too late, and her baby was born on a dirty floor. Preston "suffered and continues to suffer nightmares and emotional agony reliving the horrifying jail birth," her lawyers reported.

Worst of all are cases like that of Nicole Guerrero, who alleges her baby died because she was left to labor in solitary confinement in a Texas jail in 2012. Arrested on drug possession charges, Guerrero was eight months pregnant and experiencing cramping when she spent the night in jail. She sought medical attention as labor progressed but was allegedly rebuffed until a guard stepped in to help at the moment of delivery. Guerrero's baby was born not breathing. CPR was not performed, her lawsuit said, and while the baby was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, she was again left alone without medical attention.

Comprehensive statistics on pregnancy in American jails and prisons are hard to come by. A 2004 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found 4 percent of women in state prisons were pregnant, a rate at which Quartz calculates would put about 8,000 pregnant women in prison in America today. (The ACLU estimates 12,000.) The same year, a Bureau of Justice Statistics publication said 54 percent of women who reported they were pregnant when taken into federal prisons received prenatal care. More recently, a landmark study of 22 state prison systems and the federal prison system in 2016 found 1,396 admissions of pregnant women led to 753 live births and fewer than 100 combined miscarriages, abortions, stillbirths, and newborn deaths.

What these numbers (and more accessible data about the fate of babies born incarcerated) don't tell us, though, is the quality of the labor experience. How many of those 753 live births took place in a hospital? In a prison medical facility? In a cell? Was the mother restrained? What sort of medical help was on hand? What pain relief was she offered? Were the miscarriages, stillbirths, and newborn deaths due — as in Guerrero's story — to egregious neglect? Also lacking is information specifically pertaining to the short-term jail facilities where all four stories above took place and where in-house medical care is likely to be less than what is available in prisons.

Some reforms to how labor and delivery are handled in U.S. detention have already been accomplished. For example, Congress last year banned shackling during pregnancy, labor, and the postpartum period in federal prisons. At the state level, similar prohibitions are in place in 18 states, but eight more — Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Utah — have no restrictions on shackling laboring inmates.

Changes like these are commendable, but any reform efforts will be hamstrung absent a transformation of the culture of indifference, disdain, and disbelief among detention staff that shows up in these traumatic stories of jailhouse births. If the people running our jails and prisons do not recognize what happened to Sanchez, Jackson, Preston, and Guerrero for the abuse it is, tragedies like theirs will only continue.

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