MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The number of women in prisons and jails is on the rise in the U.S., and there's growing concern about how pregnant inmates are treated. Sometimes they are being housed alone in medical units and other types of isolation for days or even weeks at a time. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, several states including Maryland are beginning to ban the solitary confinement of pregnant inmates.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For many expectant moms, the tedious final days before the due date are spent going to baby showers, stocking the fridge, getting the nursery ready. But for Natalie Lynch, those last two weeks were spent in a prison cell, mostly alone.
NATALIE LYNCH: It's eerie. It's quiet, cold. I mean, you hear a little beep, beep from some kind of monitor. That's enough to drive a person crazy.
MCCAMMON: It was 2014, around Thanksgiving. Lynch was pregnant when she first arrived at a state women's prison in Jessup, Md., to serve time for felony drug charges. Lynch says pregnant women nearing their due date at the prison were routinely sent to a medical unit separate from the other inmates. She briefly had a roommate there, she says. But most of the time, she was alone in a small cell, seeing prison staff when they came by with a meal tray or to check her vital signs.
LYNCH: So that was about it unless we got a cool officer. And I would ask to walk around. And sometimes they'd let me get out of the cell and walk in a circle. There was one other person that would do that - walk around. She wasn't there in the head. But I would talk to her even though she would tell me the same story over and over and over again. It was something - something, though.
MCCAMMON: Lynch says she needed the exercise, and it was better than sitting alone with her thoughts in those final days as she prepared to give birth.
LYNCH: Just thinking about how much it was going to suck - couldn't have family there, no support really. It was depressing because I knew that I would have my child, maybe spend two days with her and that's it.
MCCAMMON: There's no data on how often pregnant women are locked up alone in the nation's prisons and jails. But Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union says it happens for a variety of reasons - sometimes for medical observation or as punishment for minor infractions.
AMY FETTIG: Because there are so many more men in the system and the systems are built by and for men, women's unique needs are oftentimes overlooked. So we see practices like placing women in solitary confinement when they're pregnant. We see hideous practices like shackling them when they're giving birth - all done as a knee-jerk reaction to how the system treats men.
MCCAMMON: But Maryland state corrections officials say they haven't been putting pregnant women in solitary confinement. Reached by phone, Warden Margaret Chippendale of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women said, quote, "I'm going to stop you right now. I'm really tired of reporters taking the position that pregnant inmates are isolated."
In a statement, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said pregnant women are, quote, "not placed in restrictive housing." In April, Maryland's governor signed a law which bans involuntary isolation of pregnant women. It takes effect in October. Other states, including Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska and Georgia have passed similar laws out of concerns about the impact on women and their babies.
Terry Norris is with the Georgia Sheriff's Association. While his group did not oppose the bill in his state, norris says he's had some concerns.
TERRY NORRIS: There are a lot of inmates in our county jails and prisons throughout this country - and you know this - that suffer mental illness of some sort. And in some cases, that inmate's safety, male or female, is better served if you could place them - I don't call it solitary confinement. I call it an isolation to keep them from other inmates.
MCCAMMON: Kim Haven, an advocate who helped push through Maryland's law, says prisons and jails have used many different terms to describe what's essentially the same practice.
KIM HAVEN: The wordsmithing of public safety and correctional agencies is always, well, we don't put people in solitary confinement because we have two people in a cell, or solitary confinement is 23 a day, and they're only in their cells 22 hours a day. And it's all wordsmithing.
MCCAMMON: Whatever it's labeled, it's dangerous, says Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, a gynecology and obstetrics professor at Johns Hopkins.
CAROLYN SUFRIN: Solitary confinement is in no way, shape or form something that a pregnant person should be placed in.
MCCAMMON: Sufrin says being isolated can cause psychological trauma. Pregnant women are at risk for dangerous blood clots if they're not able to move around freely. And Sufrin says they need medical personnel close at hand.
SUFRIN: We have evidence to show that people, including pregnant people, in restrictive housing often have impaired access to medical care. And this can lead to their medical needs being overlooked, leading to dangerous situations for pregnant people.
MCCAMMON: Earlier this year, Tammy Jackson an inmate at the Broward County, Fla., jail, went into labor by herself in the middle of the night in a mental health unit where she was being housed. ACLU attorney Eric Balaban says it took a while for the guards to respond and notify the doctor on call.
ERIC BALABAN: The doctor said that he would check on Ms. Jackson when he arrived at work later that morning. By the time the doctor got to work at 10 a.m., some 7 hours later, Ms. Jackson had delivered her daughter on the floor of her cell alone.
MCCAMMON: In a statement, the Broward Sheriff's Office says Jackson and her baby were provided with health care after the delivery, and officials are investigating. For a lot of women, the concern about isolation in prison doesn't stop with the birth. Natalie Lynch says when it was time for her to deliver, corrections officers took her to a hospital and quickly brought her back to prison within a couple of days.
LYNCH: I bawled my eyes out when they took my daughter from me, and that was it, back in the van, back to the prison, back to that room all by myself.
MCCAMMON: Like many babies born to women in prison or jail, Lynch's daughter was taken in by relatives. What made matters worse, she says, was going back to that cell in the medical unit facing postpartum recovery alone.
LYNCH: You know, feel my stomach and she's gone, you know. I don't have that companionship anymore, even though it was just the little kicks that I would feel. I mean, it was something. So at that point, it was like I had nothing.
MCCAMMON: Maryland's new law also bans the involuntary isolation of patients during an eight-week period after the birth, a time when advocates say new mothers are especially vulnerable. Lynch is 30, now living in coastal Maryland and taking care of her youngest child, a son born last year. So sorry here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)
LYNCH: Oh, I'm so sorry. Here - you want cracker?
MCCAMMON: She says having a new baby has been healing, but she misses her daughter, who's still in the custody of a family member.
LYNCH: It's kind of filled that little void that I had - doing things with him that I should have been able to do with her. It's kind of bittersweet.
MCCAMMON: Lynch is working as a machinist, trying to save up enough money for a more stable living situation and hoping to one day get her daughter back. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.