The effort to improve conditions for pregnant people in federal prisons took a step forward Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would expand resources and restrict solitary confinement before, during, and after labor.
The Pregnant Women in Custody Act, first introduced by California Rep. Karen Bass four years ago, would provide more counseling for postpartum depression, increase screening for high-risk pregnancy, and make other improvements to maternal health care provided in federal prisons. It passed the House with a 324-90 vote.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts added an amendment to the bill earlier this week, seeking to include “postpartum health conditions in the list of counseling to women who gave birth while in custody or prior to custody.”
“Maternal health care does not stop at birth, and every person should have the resources necessary to support their pregnancy and postpartum recovery, including those behind the wall,” Pressley said in a statement after the vote.
The bill, which still needs Senate approval, is one of many proposed laws that federal lawmakers have introduced in recent years to reform the treatment of incarcerated pregnant people and parents. Some of those efforts have been successful, such as the 2018 First Step Act that banned the common practice of shackling inmates while in labor. But other federal legislation continues to linger, including the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which focuses on improving conditions for people who were primary caregivers for their children or other relatives by increasing visitation days and eliminating fees for video conference calls.
Supporters hope that reforming conditions in federal prisons will create a model for improvements in county and local jails, as well as state prisons. Some states have passed related legislation, including laws that increase access to feminine hygiene products, improve visitation rights, or limit use of restraints of pregnant inmates.
An estimated 58,000 pregnant women are admitted into jails and prisons every year, according to an analysis of 2017 data by The Prison Policy Initiative. But there is no universal tracking of pregnant incarcerated people or their care. The Pregnant Women in Custody Act includes a clause mandating the federal government provide annual “demographic and other information about incarcerated women who are pregnant, in labor, or in postpartum recovery.”
While it’s unclear how many pregnant inmates are people of color, nearly 20% of all incarcerated women in federal prisons identify as Black or Black Hispanic.
“The treatment of women — no matter what your color or status is — once you become incarcerated, those policies and the lack of care for women and their children is just the residue of slavery — the treatment of Black women during slavery and a lack of regard for them,” said Andrea James, founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
James began a two-year sentence for wire fraud in 2011, months after giving birth to her youngest son. At the time of her sentencing, the original trial prosecutor was on maternity leave, and the assistant U.S. attorney who stepped in to finish the case chastised her defense attorney for requesting leniency on James’ sentence so she could return home to her young child.
“The response from the white male prosecutor was, ‘You know, you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant knowing you were going to prison,’” said James, who was a criminal defense attorney before her conviction.
Ultimately, she was able to give birth before surrendering herself to the custody of the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, but she agonized about leaving her newborn during critical years of development.
Inside the facility, James was greeted by a “sea of Black women,” many of them incarcerated mothers struggling with similar concerns. Most of her fellow prison mates were not afforded the “opportunity to make sure that their children were in good hands, that their children were going to be somewhere safe, that they were going to be able to continue to stay connected to their children while they are incarcerated,” James said.
“As Black people, we’re dealing with trauma on top of trauma, deep trauma,” James said, “trauma that we have not been afforded the opportunities to process, but it’s been compounded by experiences of incarceration.”