Pregnancy in Prison: A Look at Maternal Health in Pennsylvania

Women are the fastest growing prison population in the United States with now more than eight times as many incarcerated women in state and federal prisons and local jails than there were in 1980. Yet,  prison systems still lack many of the policies and resources that address the unique needs of female prisoners.

Consequently, pregnant inmates are at risk of being neglected or ignored during labor and having increased complications during pregnancy that can lead to maternal morbidity and maternal mortality. One example of this neglect was found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where five pregnant inmates at Allegheny County Jail filed a civil rights complaint in December 2016 after being forced into solitary confinement and deprived of adequate food to meet their nutritional needs.

Without policies outlining how this vulnerable population should be serviced, it is unlikely that pregnant women will have safe and humane birthing experiences while in prison.”

Eleven jails in Pennsylvania do not have a policy on providing prenatal care despite a Pennsylvania law requiring all correctional facilities to provide prenatal care. There are also only seven jails with written policies and instructions for correctional personnel specifying when a pregnant inmate in labor should be taken to the hospital, how to avoid a birth in jail, or how to avoid a birth en route to the hospital.

These types of gaps in policy implementation become wider when there is no recent data on the pregnant inmate population to reveal that a pertinent issue exists. A 2004 study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that 3 percent of women in federal prisons and 4 percent of women in state prisons reported that they were pregnant during intake. This study, however, is outdated. 

Currently, epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are gathering data using a Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System in order to better understand why the nation’s maternal mortality rate has been increasing. Since implementing this system, the number of reported pregnancy-related deaths in the United States has increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 17.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015.

This data, however, excludes women who are incarcerated  while experiencing pregnancy complications. In order to get a better understanding of how maternal mortality affects pregnant inmates in Pennsylvania, more data must be collected. By passing House Bill 1012, legislators will be able to successfully budget the cost of housing pregnant inmates.

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