Men Don’t Get Preggers; Stop Neglecting Female Inmates
Jan. 28, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Women’s Rights groups and Prison Reform activists rejoiced when it was announced last month that Gov. Cuomo had signed an anti-shackling bill into law that banned the use of restraints on all pregnant inmates during transport at correctional facilities, and for eight weeks postpartum, except in the most “extraordinary circumstances.” This bill expanded the 2009 law that prohibited the use of shackles during labor, delivery and recovery.
Cuomo said that signing this bill makes the criminal justice system “fairer and stronger.” It is true that this law finally puts to rest one of the most egregious and well-known human rights abuses faced by pregnant women in the prison system (in New York at least). However, it is also true that pregnant inmates continue to face a multitude of unaddressed and systemic abuses in the prison system, and that many of these troubling problems have received very little coverage in the mainstream media.
Even something as rudimentary as access to adequate and nutritious food is a serious issue faced by incarcerated pregnant women. In 2015, the Correctional Association of New York (CA) released a troubling report, based on five years of exhaustive interviews and legal research, revealing that New York’s state facilities consistently failed to provide adequate and minimally nutritious food for pregnant prisoners.
As of this writing, DOCCS has no written policies on nutrition for pregnant women. Bedford and Taconic, two of the state prisons evaluated by CA, claimed that pregnant inmates receive a “special diet” with “extra food” but failed to specify what exactly qualified as “special” or “extra” with respect to said meals. After investigating further, CA found that this alleged “special diet” consisted of a miserly “snack” given out at dinner, which included a carton of milk, a piece of fruit and a cold cut sandwich.
In addition, about half (48%) of the women surveyed reported that they never even received this small luxury. Moreover, many of the women who reported that they had received these minimal supplements to their diet, also reported that the milk and fruit were often absent, and sometimes rancid or rotten.
These failures can be largely attributed to the fact that jail and prisons continue to operate on gender-neutral policies that have a negative impact on the mental and physical well being of female prisoners as a whole, and impose a disproportionate burden on pregnant inmates (and their babies). Although women comprise only about 10% of the overall imprisoned population in the United States, they represent the fastest growing population within jails and prisons. Approximately 6% of these women are pregnant when they are arrested. With the growing number of incarcerated women who are pregnant, it is important to recognize that failing to provide adequate prenatal care for these women can harm the health and well being of their babies.
Food is a basic human need, and it is an axiom that pregnant women have higher caloric, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements than women who are not pregnant. Moreover, women who do not gain enough weight during pregnancy put their babies at a higher risk of severe complications such as premature birth, which can cause lung and heart problems.
It’s typically recommended that pregnant women eat three or more servings of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein each day, as well as several servings of whole grain breads or other complex carbohydrates. Proper nutrition is also vital to the healthy development of a fetus. Nutritional deficits can, for example, increase the risk of gestational diabetes and preterm labor. Nevertheless, across the board, women surveyed and interviewed by the Correctional Association said that they were not given enough food during their pregnancies.
Withholding adequate and nutritious sustenance from pregnant women is withholding medical care. As the Supreme Court recognized in Estelle v. Gamble, a landmark case governing the provision of health care in correctional facilities:
[The government has an] obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration. An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his [sic] medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met…[D]enial of medical care may result in pain and suffering, which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose. The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation, codifying the common law view that “it is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself.”
Even the staunchest “Law and Order” conservative cannot refute the evidence that depriving pregnant inmates of adequate and nutritious food harms “innocent babies,” whether or not their mothers happen to be guilty.