By Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars
In recent months, NPR and Propublica, along with advocacy organizations like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the National Birth Equity Collaborative, have drawn attention to the alarmingly high rates of and profound racial disparities in maternal mortality in the U.S. Among some of the actions being demanded in response is legislation to require collection and review of maternal mortality data across local and state jurisdictions across the country. These overdue calls to recognize and intervene on the racially grounded maternal mortality crisis in this country are part of that classic feminist project of ‘consciousness raising,’ and infused with the structural indictment provided by the reproductive justice framework.
But even within this essential project, there is one group whose pregnancy needs and experiences have been elided: pregnant people behind bars in the U.S. They do not count. While no comprehensive or updated data on how many pregnant this is or what happens to these pregnancies exist, we know that most incarcerated women in the U.S. are of childbearing age, have had limited access to contraception pre-incarceration and are already mothers; some of them will enter jail or prison pregnant. I describe the experiences of some of these pregnant incarcerated people in my book, Jailcare, and the contradictory everyday realities of motherhood and health care behind bars in the age of mass incarceration.
When pregnant incarcerated people don’t count, when there is no data about them, when there is minimal attention to the ways jails and prisons control their access to safe motherhood, then anything can happen. They can be denied their legal right to abortion, deprived of access to appropriate prenatal care, forced to detox from opiates despite known medical risks, and forced to give birth in chains. These degradations and unsafe conditions are a sign for how our society neglects our most vulnerable members—who, in this case, are disproportionately women of color. They are a bellwether for the systematic disregard of the reproductive well-being of all women.
Read more from Carolyn regarding why jail can become a safety net for pregnant women and practical strategies that we can employ to shift the role of jails in addressing this social concern.
Carolyn Sufrin is a medical anthropologist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.