As COVID-19 Spreads Behind Bars, Will Officials Release Pregnant People?

Mandi Grammer was watching the evening news, and the latest updates about the coronavirus pandemic, when she was called into her counselor’s office.

Grammer was one of five mothers incarcerated with their newborns at the mother-baby program in Illinois’s Decatur Correctional Center. A sixth person in the program was still pregnant. In the program, mothers can keep their babies with them for up to two years. Grammer had planned to stay with baby Brenleigh until July 2020 when she was scheduled to be paroled. By then, Brenleigh would be nine months old.

That Friday, March 20, however, Grammer got a welcome surprise. The prison counselor informed her that everyone in the nursery was being released. “Can your mom pick you up tonight?” the counselor asked.

Four hours later, Grammer’s mother arrived, having driven over 160 miles from her home in southern Illinois. They bundled Grammer, her five-month-old, and her meager possessions into the car, then drove back, arriving home around 1 am. Grammer isn’t free yet — she’s on home detention and electronic monitoring until April 10. Still, she’s thankful to be home early, not only to reunite early with her older children but also to avoid exposure to coronavirus within the prison system.

As confirmed cases of coronavirus and ensuing deaths skyrocket, state and local legislators are grappling with how to keep the pandemic from exploding behind bars and claiming lives. In some instances, their efforts have come too late. At New York’s Rikers Island, where people sleep 50 to a dorm, confirmed coronavirus cases have soared to more than 300 with the first death reported on Sunday. Ten of the state’s 52 prisons have confirmed cases and possibly one death. (The medical examiner has yet to announce the cause of death, but other incarcerated men reported that he died after complaining of respiratory problems.) Another in-prison death occurred at Illinois’s Stateville Correctional Center, where, as of April 5, 56 incarcerated people and 21 staff members have tested positive, according to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections. At Chicago’s Cook County Jail, 141 detained people and 25 staff had tested positive as of March 31. Three coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in the federal prison system.

Advocates across the country have ramped up their demands that governors release people from prison, particularly aging people, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant people. In some states, they’re starting to see results — in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the expected release of 3,500 of the state’s 122,265 prisoners.

The public health crisis, coupled with these increased demands, has also caused some prison officials to rethink keeping pregnant people in custody. In recent years, advocates reported a troubling trend in which judges send pregnant people to prison on sentences exceeding their delivery dates by months. Most are not able to keep their babies in prison with them after they’re born. Between 2016 and 2017, 35 pregnant people entered Illinois’s prison system; not all, of course, were accepted into the eight-bed prison nursery.

Only seven states have prison nurseries, where mothers can live with their babies while incarcerated. All of the nurseries have a limited number of beds. Ohio, for instance, reported 29 pregnant people imprisoned in December 2019; it recently expanded its nursery to hold 26 mother-baby pairs, but that still means that some will be forced to send their newborn to family members or foster care. Ohio prison officials did not respond to questions about nursery numbers or plans to prevent coronavirus exposure.

Every nursery program has stringent requirements for acceptance. For those who aren’t accepted or don’t have a prison nursery to begin with, even short prison sentences result in heart-wrenching separation only days after birth — and missing the crucial first weeks of bonding.

Missing Milestones, Missing Connections

That’s what happened to Emily French. In October 2018, French was sentenced to two years in prison for possession of five grams of methadone. The sentence required that the 25-year-old remain in prison for at least one year; in other words, she could not be granted early release before that point. This stipulation was made because French was five months pregnant. “I think that the reason [the judge] sent me to prison was so that he could protect my unborn child so that I would stay sober and not risk my child,” French told Truthout.

The judge’s logic proved flawed. French learned that she was pregnant while in county jail. She decided to stop using drugs and to have as healthy a pregnancy as possible. This would have been much easier to do outside of prison, where she could easily access fresh fruits and vegetables, prenatal vitamins and medical care. Inside prison, however, French found that it was easier to obtain drugs than adequate food.

Prison officials told French that she did not qualify for the nursery because of a past charge on her record. That meant that French had only two days with newborn Elijah in the hospital before kissing him goodbye. She was returned to the prison; he went to her aunt’s home.

Five days later, French’s aunt brought him to visit. French had planned to nurse him, so her aunt hadn’t fed him. Once in the visiting room, French was told that she could not breastfeed. During that first visit, she watched, with engorged breasts, as her son cried from hunger. (French later contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped her win a change to the no-breastfeeding policy. French was released before the policy allowing breastfeeding during visits took effect.)

When Elijah was one month old, French learned that the nursery had three empty beds and applied. She met with the administrator who, upon learning that French had two months left on her mandatory one-year imprisonment, told her that it wasn’t worth her time to fill out the paperwork. But for French, those two months would have meant watching her baby grow every day instead of being limited to a brief visit every 10 to 14 days. She missed small milestones, like Elijah being able to hold his head up on his own. He was 3 ½ months old when she was released in May and French felt wholly unprepared. “I feel like my maternal instincts didn’t kick in right away,” she recalled. “I’m a first-time mother. I feel like there’s a connection I missed from being away from him … I didn’t know what was okay and what was not. I just cried a lot.”

Advocating for the Opportunity to Give Birth Without Prison Guards

Approximately 5.6 percent of women are pregnant upon entering Minnesota’s women’s prison in Shakopee. Between 2009 and 2019, 180 women gave birth while incarcerated; 17 of those births occurred in 2019 alone.

Minnesota is one of the 43 states without a prison nursery. This means that pregnant people must expect to kiss their newborns goodbye, typically within one to three days of giving birth.

Advocates, however, are citing the threat of coronavirus to demand that the prison release pregnant women. The Minnesota Department of Corrections currently partners with Minnesota Prison Doula Project, an independent nonprofit which offers pregnancy, birth and parenting support for incarcerated women. Tonja Honsey is one of the prison doulas. She is also the founder of We Rise, a Minneapolis-based collective of formerly incarcerated people, and the first formerly incarcerated woman to be appointed to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Honsey and We Rise have been pushing for an end to the incarceration of all pregnant people throughout the state — and, with fears of coronavirus, Honsey succeeded in persuading prison officials to release one mother-to-be days before her due date.

“Her release date was in three weeks, so she would have been out soon anyway,” Honsey told Truthout. Now, Honsey is pushing for prison officials to consider releasing the other five pregnant people at Shakopee. With the looming threat of coronavirus hanging over the state’s prison system, she might succeed.

Not every state is considering the release of pregnant people. In New York, 10 pregnant people are currently incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which has a 27-bed nursery. At least one person incarcerated at the prison has been diagnosed with coronavirus. Prison officials stated that pregnant people are separated from the general population and are in contact with only a limited number of staff. Their weekly prenatal check-ups now occur via telemedicine. Officials told Truthout that there are currently 13 mothers and babies on the nursery unit.

Even in Illinois, a small number of pregnant people remain imprisoned at Logan Correctional Center, another women’s prison.

Alexis Mansfield, a senior adviser at the Women’s Justice Institute, remains hopeful that the release of pregnant people will continue. “I commend the work of the Cook County Department of Corrections [which operates the Chicago jail] and the Illinois Department of Corrections in releasing caretakers and pregnant women,” she told Truthout. “I hope this continues until they are all home and safe.”

For One Mother, These Considerations Come Too Late

These considerations come too late for Megan Ware and her son Messiah. In 2019, the 31-year-old was in her first trimester when she was arrested in DuPage County, Illinois, for stealing underwear from Macy’s.

The previous year, Illinois passed HB1464, a law urging that pregnant people not be incarcerated pretrial unless they posed a “real and present threat” to the public. The law, which took effect on January 1, 2019, has not been applied uniformly throughout the state. Ware had a previous arrest and conviction for crossing state lines with stolen merchandise, and the judge set bail at $3,000. It was an amount that neither the 31-year-old nor her family could afford.

Ware informed the court that hers was a high-risk pregnancy; she had experienced four miscarriages before. She asked to be placed on furlough (brief leave from the prison) or house arrest. Her requests were denied. “It’s like they didn’t care,” she told Truthout. She remained at the county jail until September when, threatened with felony burglary charges, she pled guilty to misdemeanor retail theft and forgery and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. By the time she entered prison, Ware was seven months pregnant.

Shortly after, Ware began experiencing contractions. She was transported to the hospital where medical staff determined that she had dilated two centimeters. She remained in the hospital and, on September 26, gave birth to a five-pound, three-ounce boy whom she named Messiah. “He had six fingers on both of his hands, six toes, and his ear wasn’t developed all the way,” Ware recalled. Messiah stayed in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), but Ware was allowed to visit him whenever she wanted while in the hospital.

Ware was returned to prison days after giving birth and soon transferred to Decatur’s mother-baby program. When Messiah was stable enough to leave the NICU, he joined her.

In the mother-baby program, mothers are unable to lock the doors to their rooms. Ware noticed that her belongings looked as if someone had been touching them while she was gone. She worried that someone might have tampered with the water for Messiah’s formula. She also noticed swelling in his left arm; every time she touched it, he cried. She wondered if someone had dropped him, but when she brought him to the prison’s medical unit, the doctor failed to thoroughly examine the newborn.

Ware decided to send Messiah to live with her sister in Iowa. It meant a painful separation months earlier than anticipated, but she feared for his well-being. The following day, her sister picked up Messiah. It was the last time Ware would hold or kiss her baby.

Ware’s first eligible parole date is December 2020, one year and three months after giving birth. Instead of planning a reunion (and a belated first birthday party), Ware is instead grieving. In December 2019, Messiah died. The cause was determined to be sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS can occur at any point during a baby’s first year; premature babies, like Messiah, are more vulnerable.

Illinois law allows incarcerated people to apply for a furlough to attend a family member’s funeral. Family members typically must cover the cost of having two correctional officers escort their incarcerated loved one. For Ware, that was a cost her family couldn’t afford.

Ware could also attend her son’s funeral via video visit. Her family would have to pay $13.75 for 55 minutes, a much cheaper option. Prison officials initially denied Ware’s request. Only after her mother called the governor’s office did prison officials approve her request. Instead of hugging her two older children or kissing her son for the last time, Ware watched everything through her sister’s phone.

Advocates Push for Decarceration

Prison nurseries allows mothers to live with their newborns, but exclude their older children. While in Decatur’s nursery, Grammer remained separated from her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.

Each week, Grammer’s mother brought the children for five-hour visits with their mother and new sister. Goodbyes were always painful. Each time, recalled Grammer’s mother, the 5-year-old “will start crying, hugging her mom. When we get to the door, she always jerks out of my hand and runs back. That breaks my heart.”

Had Grammer had to wait for her projected parole date in July, she would have spent 15 months separated from her older children.

Instead, Grammer reunited with her children four months early. She’s on electronic monitoring, which renders her unable to leave the house. With Illinois under shelter-in-place orders, however, the restriction on movement hasn’t especially bothered her. “I don’t really need to go anywhere,” she said, noting that her mother has been the one to buy groceries and baby supplies.

Grammer’s older children are overjoyed to have her home and rarely leave her side, not even when sleeping. Her 5-year-old daughter, however, cannot understand why her mother will never go outside with her, but that restriction will only last until mid-April, when Grammer is technically finished with electronic monitoring. (Sentencing credits have shortened her period of supervision.)

Looking back, Grammer says that she is grateful that she could keep her newborn with her in the prison nursery, but wishes that a non-prison alternative had been available earlier. Being in prison, she noted, means “being susceptible to the violence, the diseases” as well as the constant stress of being separated from her older children. “That was probably the hardest part — knowing that the kids are being raised by someone else,” she said.

Mansfield hopes that, especially with coronavirus spreading through prisons and jails, officials realize the dangers of incarcerating pregnant people. “We need to rethink incarceration of caretakers generally, and of pregnant women in particular,” she said. “We need to do it before it’s too late — across the country.”

This article was updated on April 8 to note that after publication, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confirmed there were 13 mothers and babies in the Bedford Hills nursery.