Prison birth drives renewed attention to CT’s treatment of female inmates

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Amid a widely publicized incident in which a woman was forced to give birth in a cell, Connecticut legislators are aiming to make prison safer for female inmates.

Less than a month after a woman gave birth in her cell at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is throwing his support behind a bill to improve the treatment of the state’s incarcerated women.

The legislation would ensure female inmates have access to adequate care during and after pregnancy and that all incarcerated women have access to feminine hygiene products at no cost.

Department of Correction (DOC) policy already requires that pregnant inmates be sent to an outside hospital while in labor. But that’s not what happened in Niantic last month; instead, the baby was born in a cell. The mother and child had to be treated onsite before being transported to a local hospital.

The prison was aware that the woman was pregnant, and the DOC has launched an investigation into how the situation occurred. Two health care workers were placed on suspension as a result of the investigation’s preliminary findings, which have yet to be disclosed.

The incident has led to calls for state prison reform from a coalition of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, the Connecticut Bail Fund, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, and the Sex Workers and Allies Network.

“It’s unconscionable that Connecticut’s prison employees left a woman to give birth in a prison cell without medical care or help. No pregnant person should have to endure that kind of inhumane and potentially dangerous treatment,” the coalition said in a statement.

The new bill — which was introduced just days before the incident — focuses primarily on the treatment of pregnant inmates at York, the only female prison under state control. It would require York to have at least one health care provider trained in prenatal or postpartum care.

Pregnant inmates would be entitled to counseling about the institution’s practices and policies, to ensure they’re aware of their rights leading up to and during delivery as well as after giving birth. Inmates would also have access to counseling on pregnancy care, prenatal nutrition, and labor and delivery.

That counseling would be backed up by new standards for health monitoring by licensed providers, guaranteed access to an adequate diet with the necessary nutrients to maintain a healthy pregnancy, and prenatal vitamin supplements.

Insufficient access to nutritional foods is a major issue for pregnant inmates around the country. In neighboring New York, a 2015 report by the New York Correctional Association found women in state prisons “universally reported they did not get enough food during pregnancy.”

“[P]regnant women have higher caloric, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements than women who are not pregnant. Proper nutrition is also vital to the healthy development of a fetus,” the report noted.

The Connecticut bill also instructs the DOC to develop new statewide guidelines for all transgender inmates before October 1, 2018.

In 2014, a 16-year-old transgender woman was transferred from the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to York Correctional Institution after being classified as a “dangerous youth.” That left the transgender teenager in solitary confinement at an adult prison.

Civil rights activists accused the DCF of abusing its authority in order to pass off a difficult case that required a unique treatment plan. In 2015, a state appellate court reversed the transfer and the teen was sent back into DCF care.

The bill also:

  • Prohibits shackling of pregnant inmates during labor (DOC policy already bans this practice);
  • Requires child-friendly visitation policies to promote family reunification;
  • Prohibits non-medical staff of the opposite gender from viewing female inmates as they undress, use toilets, or shower; and
  • Requires the creation of new gender-based risk assessment strategies to meet the needs of female offenders.

The legislation is aimed at ending a “cycle of trauma” that can cause increased recidivism rates among female inmates, according to a statement from Gov. Malloy’s office.

“Incarcerated women face unique challenges and barriers to success – a consideration that should be reflected in our policies,” Malloy said.

The bill is cosponsored by state Sens. Bob Duff and Martin Looney and Reps. Joe Aresimowicz and Matt Ritter.