Gender-Based Violence Against Incarcerated Pregnant Women: A Tale of Two Cases

Written by: Geeya Patel

Every birthing person has the right to proper healthcare, regardless of their status as a prisoner or a free citizen, legal or illegal immigrant, and especially as individuals with bodily autonomy. 

Case One: Incarcerated Mothers in Alabama Prison Faces Abuse

The process of childbirth is hard enough to imagine as it is, but the US jail system is creating greater hardships by inviting abuse and isolation tactics toward pregnant and birthing persons. A system which is meant to support those who are placed into it is using its power and superior status to manipulate the healthcare rights which are given to pregnant inmates. 

A case which has gained public awareness in regard to this issue would be the case of Ashley Caswell, a prisoner in Alabama’s Etowah County Jail, who was forced to give birth in the showers at the facility while no one listened to her calls to be moved to a hospital. She ended up going through 12 hours of labour, alone on the concrete floor, and eventually passed out after giving birth. 

Etowah County Jail has been known to discriminate against pregnant mothers as they “protect” ‘unborn children’ by essentially taking them from their mothers after inducing a difficult childbirth. In recent years, Etowah County Jail has targeted a minimum of 257 new mothers and pregnant mothers who came into the system. Etowah County Jail was also in the newscycle in 2019 for targeting pregnant women who used drugs, regardless of whether the choice was consensual or if they were unaware of what had occurred. The Marshall Project broke a story regarding Etowah County Jail’s aim to criminalize pregnant women regardless of what charge they had come in with, and, further, to keep women behind bars, rather than offer support programs which aim on bettering pregnant women, mothers’, and children’s lives. 

That a jail system can hold so much power over one’s bodily autonomy is inhumane, especially when considering the dignity and pride a mother feels when giving birth. By forcing childbirth in poor conditions, the jail is able to strip the mothers of the respect they deserve. The disregard of Constitutional rights to freedom and bodily autonomy not only impacts the mothers, but also impacts the foundations of democracy. The ability to dehumanize certain individuals, due to their status (or lack of status) in being inmates is unfair and unjust. Organizations like Southern Poverty Law Center are able to step in as they did with this case and advocate for equal rights to those both in and out of the system, those who are targeted due to a number of factors such as incarceration status, financial status, and race. 

Case Two: Incarcerated Mothers in ICE Facilities Face Abuse

The case of abuse in jails and prisons is not new to the United States, and there have been numerous cases cited regarding ICE detention centers, which also routinely abuse innocent individuals who are in their facilities. Especially when these individuals are vulnerable and unaware of their legal rights. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement works with certain standards for the detainment facilities but have yet to fully implement these standards, especially in regards to the treatment of pregnant individuals. However, “ICE has ordered that pregnant women will not generally be detained on two occasions” but as an external agency with its own rules, the enforcement of certain policies is quite lenient. 

In the detention facility in Ocilla, Georgia, a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, told the public that medical procedures were taking place with neither proper explanation nor reason. The Irwin County Detention Center faced action based on testimony from Karina Cisneros Preciado, a 23-year old who had faced sexual abuse from doctors in the facility. The lack of transparency in the medical process took away her bodily autonomy and medical rights. The doctor who treated Preciado, Dr. Mahendra Amin, faced 41 counts of class action lawsuits, citing mistreatment and medical abuse. 

Women in ICE detention centers are open to all sorts of exploitation and abuse, as their identities are interpreted as a symbol of their vulnerability. With this in mind, superiors in the detention facilities are able to medically abuse them without expecting repercussions, as these individuals are unaware of their legal and medical rights. 

Ways To Help

A possibility of change in both the justice and prison systems relies heavily on the legislative bodies of the United States. Representatives have the capabilities to step up and initiate change which focuses on helping those who are already marginalized due to their status as an incarcerated person. In order to initiate this process, the people must contact their respective legislative bodies and members to push for the change. Along with that, the judicial system must look into possible regulations and laws which can provide protection for birthing persons who are incarcerated. This can be done with the help of local organizations that specialize in reproductive justice and prison reform. This change process requires the active participation of citizens in order to be successful, so it is crucial for individuals to volunteer, donate, and contact their local legislative offices, justice organizations, and community groups in order to come together to protect the rights of vulnerable, incarcerated mothers. The National Defense Center for Criminalized Survivors is one organization to volunteer with or provide financial support. NDCCS, addresses the unique needs of victims and survivors of gender-based violence who have been criminalized, focusing on providing aid and support in issues involving the intersections of law and abuse for inmates.

At Global Foundation for Girls (GFG), we are active thought partners, serving global communities of birthing persons in order to advance and support the advocacy movement. We lead webinars and trainings for providers including doulas, social workers, childbirth educators, and more! To learn more about our upcoming trainings click here!