Senate bill aims to improve care for pregnant women and babies in federal prisons

Legislation introduced by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator Susan Collins aims to improve care in federal prisons for pregnant and postpartum women and their babies.

If passed, the Health and Welfare Protection of Infants and Pregnant Women in Custody Act would establish standards of care for federal institutions across the country, requiring access to medical and mental health, as well as education on parental rights and breastfeeding.

The law would restrict when pregnant women can be placed in restrictive housing, prohibit the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the US Marshal Service from placing pregnant women in solitary confinement during the third trimester, and require the BOP Evaluates pregnant women to determine if their pregnancy is high risk.

“We must ensure that pregnant women in prison receive the prenatal and postpartum care they need. By setting standards for their treatment in federal custody and ensuring reliable access to medical care and proper nutrition, our bipartisan legislation will improve the health and safety of these women and their babies,” Klobuchar said.

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Experts say this type of legislation could help tackle the inadequate care that stems from a patchwork of rules and policies from prison to prison, as well as a lack of funding for treatment – ​​although its impact is limited to federal institutions.

Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and leader of the Advocacy and Research Initiative on the Reproductive Well-Being of Incarcerated Persons, said that while there are standards of care in federal prisons, it there is also a lack of uniformity. .

“The problem is just that independence [from federal rules] varies from state to state where people are detained. So that would potentially give some normalization,” Sufrin said.

Wanda Bertram, research analyst for the Prison Policy Initiative, said pregnant women often struggled to eat adequately in prison.

“Prisons usually have policies that, you know, if you’re pregnant, you can get a little more food,” Bertram said. “But the diet people get in prisons is terrible.” People often have to spend their own money or their family’s money to supplement their meals.

From 1980 to 2020, the number of women and girls incarcerated has increased by more than 475 percent. According to the report “Mass Incarceration of Women: The Whole Pie of 2019” from the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2019 there were about 200,000 women in state prisons or local prisons, compared to about 16,000 in prisons or federal prisons.

“Federal prisons are only a fraction of the overall incarcerated system,” Bertram said.

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Women of color are disproportionately affected by incarceration. A reportThe Sentencing Project released this year showed that in 2020, the imprisoned rate of black women was 1.7 times that of white women, and the imprisonment rate of Latinas was 1.3 times that of white women.

The First Step Act of 2018 required the Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect data on pregnancy results in federal prisons. But other facilities do not have such requirements; Klobuchar and Collins’ bill could help address this lack of data. It includes funding for studies and data collection aimed at better understanding the health needs of pregnant women in custody, including those in custody at the state, tribal or local levels.

“Many pregnant women in prison have not had a single prenatal or perinatal visit to the doctor since their incarceration. It’s really, really inconvenient, and it has a lot to do with prisons not spending money to retain enough medical staff to see everyone who needs to be seen for various health issues,” Bertram said. .

Sufrin said she hopes the federal legislation could be a model for states. The bill includes grants for states that would help them improve care. She also suggested care in jails and jails could be improved by lifting a provision that makes them largely ineligible for Medicaid.

The bill introduced by Klobuchar and Collins has been endorsed by groups including the American Psychological Association, the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, the Vera Institute for Justice and the Major County Sheriffs of America.

The authors of the legislation did not respond to questions about whether the new measures apply to pregnant people who do not identify as women.

“Incarcerated women deserve access to quality health services, including maternity care, which can help prevent maternal health complications and ensure newborns get a healthy start in life,” said Collins in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill would require prisons to provide appropriate accommodations and resources as well as implement training programs to support pregnant women.”

Complementary legislation in the House was introduced by Democratic Representative Karen Bass and Republican Representative Guy Reschenthaler.

Norman D. Briggs