The U.S. has four percent of the world’s female population, but thirty percent of its female incarcerated population. Yet the first systematic investigation to collect perspective data on pregnancy frequencies and outcomes among women in U.S. prisons didn’t occur until 2016, according to Carolyn Surfin, MD, PhD; Lauren Beal, MPH; Jennifer Clarke, MD, MPH: Rachel Jones, PhD and William D. Mosher, PhD, the authors of the study.
Prison pregnancy data is critical in ensuring that incarcerated women’s pregnancy –related health care needs are addressed. And in helping optimize outcomes for them and their newborns, according to the study.
“Documenting pregnancy outcomes in prisons is a matter of health equity and reducing maternal health disparities. Black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of White women, a manifestation of the racism embedded in the U.S. criminal legal system, said the authors of the study.
Prisons are constitutionally required to provide health care, however no mandatory standards, oversight or requirements for data reporting are in place. Although voluntary accreditation programs exist (e.g., the Nation- al Commission on Correctional Health Care), this lack of standardized health services results in tremendous variability in pregnancy in care in prisons, according to the study.
There are numerous complexities of birth in custody, such as the medically unsafe practices of shackling pregnant women in labor and placing them in solitary confinement. Other issues are ensuring proper pregnancy and postpartum care, and determining who will care for the infants born to mothers in custody, according to the study.
The far-reaching consequences of the health of incarcerated people for the public’s health and that of a broader society are well documented. These consequences are compounded for incarcerated pregnant women given that incarceration affects not only their health but also that of subsequent generations, according to the study.
Information about imprisoned women’s pregnancies can help improve outcomes for mothers and their children beyond pregnancy. The majority of women who give birth while in custody will be separated from their newborns soon after delivery, which imposes significant limitations on breastfeeding, bonding and parental rights, according to the study.
Further research is need- ed, because data from this study (and subsequent studies) can be used to develop national standards of health care for incarcerated pregnant women. The data can also be used to advocate for policies and legislation that ensure adequate and safe pregnancy care and childbirth; as well as develop alternatives to incarceration for pregnant women, according to the study.