Ill. prison opens special wing for mothers-to-be and postpartum inmates
Offenders have their own rooms, more comfortable bedding and unlimited access to telephones, as well as video phones, to call their baby’s caretaker or other children
By Angie Leventis Lourgos
Mandi Grammer was already terrified when admitted in March to Logan Correctional Center.
Then during intake, a routine test revealed a shock: The inmate was unexpectedly pregnant with her third child, who would continue to grow in her womb as she began serving a three-year sentence for retail theft.
Her blood pressure skyrocketed, she recalled, and she couldn’t stop sobbing. The news spurred a flurry of additional worries for the 34-year-old from Carterville, Illinois.
Would the pregnancy be in danger? What kind of care would she and the fetus receive behind bars? Where and under what conditions would she give birth?
Yet some of these anxieties quelled after Grammer was assigned to a new pregnancy wing at Logan, which is about three hours southwest of Chicago. The special housing unit opened in February with the mission of providing a safer and more humane environment for pregnant and postpartum inmates, said acting Warden Beatrice Calhoun.
Offenders have their own rooms and can move about the wing freely. More comfortable bedding and large maternity pillows are permitted. The staff says the women have unlimited access to telephones, as well as video phones, to call their baby’s caretaker or other children.
A refrigerator full of donated healthy snacks — including pickle juice frozen pops, a particular craving of a few of the women living in the wing — is available at all times. Classes and nutrition are tailored for mothers-to-be and their offspring, and pregnancy education classes are mandatory.
“It’s a calming atmosphere,” Grammer said on a recent weekday, her third-trimester pregnancy swelling under a pink polo shirt, the uniform color designated for pregnant inmates so they’re easily identifiable on grounds.
The new wing at Logan is part of a larger shift in the treatment of pregnant women in jails and prisons across Illinois as well as nationwide, a growing recognition of the impact incarceration can have on parenthood as well as the next generation.
The Illinois Department of Corrections in 2007 launched its “Moms and Babies” program at Decatur Correctional Center, which allows some offenders to keep their infants in a prison nursery after giving birth.
Illinois in 1999 became the first state to ban the practice of shackling incarcerated women during labor and delivery, and many other states have passed some form of anti-shackling laws over the past two decades.
About a year and a half ago, Logan began allowing one designated “birthing support person” — often the father of the baby or a relative of the inmate — to be present during labor and birth, as well as up to an hour afterward. Delivery typically occurs at an outside hospital or medical facility. A correctional officer is present except immediately prior to and during delivery, when the officer steps just outside the door, according to the prison’s pregnancy wing orientation manual.
“The emphasis of this gender responsive, trauma-informed and family-centered program is to facilitate family ties by strengthening the bond between extended family and the newborn,” the document states.
As for Grammer, she still stresses about having to return to prison without her newborn after giving birth.
Her baby is due in October. Her projected parole is in July 2020, according to state corrections records.
She doesn’t know the baby’s gender yet and is hoping to be surprised at delivery.
But after an ultrasound, she asked a medical provider to write “boy” or “girl” inside an envelope, which she shared with her fellow inmates and the wing’s correctional officer, who have so far managed to keep the secret from her.
“The other girls in here, honestly, are really supportive,” Grammer said. “We’ve all been through something. So we can help … get someone else through that, whatever they’re going through.”
Amanda Peery knew she was pregnant when she arrived at Logan in May.
Yet the petite 30-year-old — who already has a 1-year-old son ? suspected her belly seemed larger than typical this time, describing mysterious simultaneous movements on both sides of the womb.
An ultrasound at 32 weeks showed she was actually carrying twins. She recalled the other women in the wing cheered when she relayed the news.
In early August, Peery delivered two boys by cesarean section, one going home with her fiance, the other taken to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
“It was scary, but I had my fiance there with me,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine doing it without anybody.”
There were 11 inmates housed in the pregnancy wing on a recent weekday, out of a total population of roughly 1,600. The multilevel security prison stretches across more than 150 acres, 57 of which are enclosed in security fencing.
Pregnant offenders are first screened for placement on the wing, according to the staff: No high aggression levels. No history of sexual crimes or crimes against children. No one can be so severely mentally ill that they might threaten the safety of others.
Some advocates for those in custody say programs like the one at Logan are only partial solutions to the broader problem of mass incarceration.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Gail T. Smith, founder of the nonprofit Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, which is now part of Cabrini Green Legal Aid.
While she appreciates improved care for pregnant inmates, Smith favors more sentencing alternatives to incarceration, so that many of the offenders wouldn’t be taken into custody in the first place.
“It does not do anything to address the biggest issue for women at Logan at the time they give birth — that they are separated from their infants,” she said. “That’s a devastating thing to do for the mother and the baby. For normal development, skin-on-skin contact is absolutely essential for newborn babies. That puts the children at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives. For mother infant bonding, they need to be with each other.”
Women can remain in the pregnancy wing until about eight weeks postpartum, so long as there are no pregnant offenders waiting to move into the wing, which corrections staffers say helps them monitor for postpartum depression and other mental health concerns. Breast pumps are available if mothers want to pump and freeze milk, to be sent home with caretakers for their babies.
“You can feel the bond with your baby,” said Sherrin Fitzer, the women and family administrator at Logan. “You’re providing that healthy milk for the baby’s immune system. It’s not the immediate bonding, but it’s still that connection.”
For Peery, returning to Logan from the hospital after giving birth without her twin boys was devastating.
Yet she says she finds comfort in calling her fiance multiple times a day and the nurse at the NICU once every 24 hours or so, which wouldn’t all be possible if she were housed elsewhere in the prison.
She’s serving time for drug possession and violating the terms of an earlier parole, but is scheduled to be out on parole again at the end of September.
“I just want to spend time with my babies,” she said, brushing away tears. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s very hard leaving. Just going through all of it, being away from my fiance and kids. ... But I know we’ll be together soon.”
The pregnancy wing was the brainchild of correctional staff and administration members who were concerned about the safety and well-being of pregnant and postpartum offenders, who used to be housed throughout the prison.
Correctional officer Tonya Bottrell, who works in the pregnancy wing, said she used to fear that if there was a medical emergency, she wouldn’t be able to get to pregnant offenders quickly enough. Now there’s a much smaller ratio of staff members to inmates, she said.
In January, before the wing opened, an inmate went into labor unexpectedly and gave birth in a regular housing unit the prison. The baby was healthy and is now living with the mother at the prison nursery at Decatur Correctional Center, staffers said. State public health officials recently ran a simulation of an unexpected labor in the pregnancy wing, to better prepare staff and offenders in the event this ever happens again.
“A lot of people don’t think about, or they don’t understand that one wrong move — you could have one too many drinks and you could be in the same situation that these ladies are in,” Bottrell said. “To be in here, to be pregnant, going through all of the emotional things that you would go through, is hard.”
A landmark study of pregnancy behind bars was published in March in the American Journal of Public Health, the first research of its kind on the prevalence and outcomes of pregnancies in prisons. From 2016 to 2017, data collected from 22 state prison systems — including Illinois — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons showed nearly 1,400 pregnant women were admitted to these facilities during that time.
Yet outcomes varied widely by state and facility, said research leader Carolyn Sufrin, an assistant professor in gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine. For example, she said of the data collected 6% of live births were preterm and the C-section rate was about 30%; some states, though, had much higher rates in both categories.
She added that the dearth of data on pregnancy during incarceration “signals that no one was really paying attention to these women, and when people aren’t paying attention to them, they can be treated or mistreated” in various ways.
This can have grave impacts on future generations, she said.
“If you start the origin of that person’s life, if they come into this world to a mother who is incarcerated while she’s pregnant, the care she receives while she is pregnant can impact that baby’s life and the child’s life for the future,” said Sufrin, author of the book “Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars.” “So the care they receive — and in some cases don’t receive — has a lasting inter-generational effect.”
©2019 the Chicago Tribune