By Lauren Kuhlik, Equal Justice Works Fellow, ACLU National Prison Project.
Being pregnant in prison is a humiliating, dehumanizing, and dangerous experience in the best of circumstances. Pregnant incarcerated people have to fear loss of reproductive choices, shackling, and solitary confinement, as well as the inevitable separation from their newborns.
The COVID-19 pandemic only heightens these concerns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[p]regnant women experience changes in their bodies that may increase their risk of some infections. With viruses from the same family as COVID-19, and other viral respiratory infections, such as influenza, women have had a higher risk of developing severe illness.” Many incarcerated people also have preexisting medical conditions, including ones that would make pregnancy high-risk, and are therefore are medically vulnerable to COVID-19.
Pregnant people who are symptomatic for COVID-19 might be separated from their newborns at the hospital. This would be a difficult experience for any new parent, but it is particularly devastating and harmful for incarcerated people, who are quickly sent back to the prison and unable to see or hold their children even after the symptoms pass. This trauma interferes with their ability to bond with their children as well as causing severe emotional harm.
The situation for pregnant people incarcerated in North Carolina is now a crisis, and one that demands immediate action. North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) holds an extremely high number of pregnant people, including pretrial detainees who may be held solely because they cannot afford bail. The ACLU is investigating conditions for these and other pregnant people at NCCIW and has determined that, not only are the protections against COVID-19 at the prison insufficient for the entire population, but people detained pretrial are housed in a large dorm where they sleep and eat in close quarters and cannot maintain any form of social distancing. People incarcerated at NCCIW often have traumatic birth experiences, including being shackled even during labor and having only two or three short days with their infants before being sent back to prison in shackles. They are not allowed to have any visitors in the hospital or tell family when they go into labor, meaning that a sick infant might end up in the NICU alone until someone can come pick them up.
Because these circumstances pose substantial physical and emotional risks to pregnant people at NCCIW, advocates including the ACLU of North Carolina recently sent a letter to the Department of Public Safety demanding that pregnant and postpartum people be released to the furthest extent possible. Their letter echoes recommendations endorsed by the ACLU and others, including limiting arrests, prosecutions, and pretrial detention, and releasing both people who are held pretrial on bail and those who are sentenced. They also suggest that pregnant and postpartum people be temporarily released if no other avenue for release is possible. Police and prosecutors should also choose not to arrest or prosecute pregnant and postpartum people, so that they are never exposed to crowded jails or prisons in which COVID-19 can spread freely in the first place.
Given the risks of exposure, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services now includes pregnant people in the “high-risk” category for COVID-19. It recommends that pregnant people stay in their homes and engage in social distancing. These risks and recommendations apply with equal force to pregnant incarcerated people, but incarcerated individuals cannot act on these recommendations or protect themselves for exposure. The situation that pregnant incarcerated North Carolinians face in prison and jail is dire. By the time an incarcerated person tests positive for the virus, it will be too late. The governor, prosecutors, judges, and the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety all have the power to protect pregnant people in the care of the criminal legal system and maybe even to save lives. They need to act now.