Pass the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act

“That pain was indescribable and what hurts me more though is the fact that nobody cared.” Diana Sanchez, on giving birth alone in her jail cell

Pamela Winn’s dead baby was thrown in the trash by prison guards. What happens when a woman throws her baby in the trash? Usually, she goes to prison.
In 2003, while in federal prison, Pamela Winn found out she was 6 weeks pregnant. During transportation, her ankles and belly were shackled, and she fell stepping up into a van. Several days later, when she was 12 weeks pregnant, she started bleeding. Medical staff said they couldn’t help her, and needed approval from the U.S Marshals to take her to the hospital. The approval took four weeks, and when she finally went to the ER, they said it wasn’t an emergency anymore. Marshal approval for an OBGYN took another four weeks. During this four weeks, Pamela was kept in solitary confinement. When she was 20 weeks pregnant, she miscarried. She was alone in a dark cell, in a pool of blood, in excruciating pain, until a guard walked by. When she was finally taken to a hospital, the doctor said she had lost the baby. He asked where the fetus was and the guards said they’d thrown it in the trash with her bloody sheets.
In 2012, Nicole Guerrero was being held in solitary confinement after being imprisoned on drug possession charges. She informed the guards that she was in pain and was seen by a jail nurse who said she was not in labor. Throughout the night, her pain heightened, but her requests for medical attention were ignored. Early in the morning, she gave birth with the help of a guard who walked by her cell and heard her cries. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck and it wasn’t breathing. Guerrero claims that no one performed CPR. The baby was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead. Guerrero was left in her cell and did not receive medical attention.
On July 31st, 2018, Diana Sanchez went into labor with her son. At the time, she was imprisoned at a jail in Denver. Surveillance video shows that for five hours, officers and nurses ignored her anguished cries as her labor progressed. When her water broke, they brought her an absorbent pad to absorb the fluid and blood. Although the nurse did order a van to bring Sanchez to the hospital, it did not arrive in time since prisoners can’t be transported until new prisoners are booked. She gave birth to her son, unassisted, on an unsanitary jail bed next to an open toilet. The jail nurse did not do a full newborn exam. Sanchez and her baby weren’t transported to the hospital until 30 minutes after the birth when the Fire Department came. If there had been complications such as hemorrhage (excessive bleeding) or mucus in the baby’s lungs, it is unlikely that both of them would be alive and healthy. Sanchez is suing Denver city and county, Denver Health Medical Center, and six Denver Sheriff Department personnel. During their internal investigation, the Denver Sheriff Department claimed their deputies and nurses followed procedure. Now, they’ve changed their policy so that women are transported to the hospital with any symptoms of labor.
Whether someone has committed a crime or not, they deserve medical care. A report published this year surveyed pregnant women from 2016-2017 in a sample of state prisons and all federal prisons. It found that there is no universal standard of care for incarcerated pregnant women. In 2008, only 23% of New York prisons gave pregnant women full access to maternity care. Some states don’t even guarantee basic prenatal care. Yet, women are the fastest growing population in the US prison system.
Even when they receive basic care, women are still denied healthy prenatal diets, and they often don’t get enough of the food available to sustain a healthy pregnancy. Prison diets lack complex nutrients, which increases risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preterm birth or low birth weight, and a dangerous prenatal condition called preeclampsia. In many places, laboring women are also shackled when they’re transported to the hospital and then cuffed to the hospital bed while they give birth.
Furthermore, medical inequality in the prison system disproportionately affects black and Latina women. Latina women are incarcerated 1.3 times more frequently than white women. Black women already suffer from higher rates of maternal mortality than white women. They are incarcerated twice as frequently as white women, and are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy and birth-related complications. If black women are dying in good hospitals, what will happen to them if they are left without medical care in a jail cell?
90% of births in US prisons resulted in no maternal or fetal deaths in 2016-2017, but mostly because women’s bodies are programmed to preserve pregnancies, not because the prison system supports them. 80% of women in prison are mothers, which means around 170,000 women are currently separated from their children. Traumatic pregnancies and births are just adding insult to injury. They’ve been through a mother’s hell. Federal and state governments need to create universal laws with specific standards for pregnant women in prison, based on medical standards of care. How do we make this happen?
In 2017, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker championed legislation that prevents women in federal prison from being shackled during childbirth, sent more than 500 miles from their nearest family member, and from having to buy tampons.
In April, they reintroduced the larger bill, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which will expand and improve care for incarcerated women. It would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to establish fair visitation policies, provide parenting classes, supply free hygiene products and ibuprofen, stop charging for phone calls, make free video conference available, prevent male staff from entering women’s restrooms other than in emergencies, and provide “trauma-informed care” and train guards to adequately care for survivors of trauma. It would also require federal prison oversight from the Justice Department. The Dignity Act should be adopted by states as well.
Anyone reading this article probably knows that the prison system is a hot mess. I’m pretty sure when someone fails to prevent a murder or knows about a murder and doesn’t do squat, it’s called accessory to murder. The government and the prison system are accessories to murder. Every time a mother or child dies or gets hurt because they weren’t given basic medical care, it’s on the system. Head over to the Action page to figure out how you can help improve the prison system for incarcerated women and parents.