In 2018, a woman named Diana Sanchez gave birth alone in the Denver County Jail, and in agony. Sanchez is now suing the city of Denver with the mission to ensure that no one else in the city has to go through the experience she endured.
In the United States, pregnant people who are incarcerated are likely to endure humiliation, unhealthy conditions and more as they attempt to exist in a system not adequately designed or equipped to assist them through a pregnancy. The conditions that pregnant people might expect to endure while incarcerated include being kept in isolation, having inadequate meals, their reports of pain or labor, being ignored by guards and medical professionals alike, being strip-searched before leaving for the hospital and even being shackled or handcuffed enroute to the hospital and inside hospitals.
Part of the reason why it is difficult to aid incarcerated pregnant individuals at the institutional level is that little data exists which conveys the scope of the problem properly. The individualization of how prisons and jails track incarcerated people is a factor in this, as some places track admittance of pregnant incarcerated people, others track births that occur in their facilities, a few track both of those things and some track nothing. There’s also no single database tracking pregnant incarcerated people, so no form of data collection that is consistently in operation on this presently exists.
That is not to say that no data exists, as a 2019 study from the American Journal of Public Health reports that from 2016 to 2017 says that 1,396 pregnant women were admitted to prisons nationwide. The same study reports that 753 pregnant incarcerated people gave birth while incarcerated. This data comes from the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics Project, a data collection effort by researchers and medical professionals including Dr. Carolyn Sufrin of the John Hopkins School of Medicine.
The tragedy in Denver is not new or unique. In Florida, a woman named Tammy Jackson suffering from a mental illness gave birth in a jail cell as well. This happened seven hours after she asked for medical assistance, and her lawyers are saying that medical staff knew she was experiencing contractions but failed to aid her.
In response to this, the Denver Sheriff Department is shifting its policy from holding birthing mothers in dedicated medical units, to transporting them to nearby hospitals, according to a statement. But this might not pacify critics, many of whom are aware that following an internal investigation the Denver Sheriff’s Department conducted into the incident no deputy was held accountable for the incident.
Over the last few years, more and more groups and politicians have begun to argue that serious reforms are needed to combat this gradually increasing public health crisis. Given current estimates that there might be more than 200,000 women incarcerated in the United States it makes sense that for people to be concerned. The growth of the population of incarcerated females is actually outpacing the growth of the population of incarcerated males.