Legal Issues for Moms Behind Bars

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on May 08, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With Mother's Day approaching, we want to remind readers that moms behind bars have legal rights, too. But what are those rights, and are they being enforced?

A report by the National Women's Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights explored a range of important issues affecting pregnant and parenting women who are in prison. Though the study was conducted a few years ago, the issues addressed are still important.

Here are a few legal areas that affect incarcerated mothers to this day:

Prenatal Care

It's important for expectant moms behind bars to receive medical care. That's why some states provide screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies to prevent birth injuries. This is especially important for incarcerated women, as they are more likely to have high-risk pregnancies, according to the NWLC's report.

Correctional facilities in some states make accommodations for pregnant women's needs, including proper nutrition and HIV testing. They also make arrangements for deliveries and make sure moms take part in appropriate physical activity.

Shackling Policies

Though many consider shackling prisoners during labor and delivery barbaric and dangerous, only a handful of states prohibit the use of restraints when a pregnant prisoner is giving birth. Even fewer extend the rule to post-delivery.

But in those states, if anyone associated with the prison or jail violates the law, women can take legal action and hold the state accountable for alleged misconduct.

Only a few states have written policies that prohibit the use of restraints dueing transport, delivery, and post-delivery.

The rationale behind shackling pregnant inmates is safety -- that they might escape or pose a danger to others. Not surprisingly, doctors, or at least professional medical associations, are not fans of this practice and don't think it's a valid reason to do it.

Prison Nursery Programs

Prison nursery programs, though less desirable than alternative sentencing, give mothers and children the opportunity to spend time together. In these programs, mothers breastfeed their babies and attend classes that improve their child-rearing skills. Studies have shown that a mother's participation in a prison nursery program greatly increases her chances of rehabilitation when she's released from prison.

These programs are also aimed to help the children. Babies in prison nursery programs often prevent attachment disorders or other developmental difficulties caused by early separation from a caregiver.

Seeing Kids on Mother's Day and Other Holidays

Finally, some groups hold annual Mother's Day events that provide free transport for hundreds of kids to visit their moms in state prisons, as a Reuters photographer documented last year. Organizers say regular prison visits reduce the chance of parents becoming repeat offenders, and make children more emotionally adjusted.

Of course each prison has its own visitation policies, and some only allow telephone contact if you're not the prisoner's lawyer. So before making the trip to see a mom behind bars on Mother's Day, contact the prison to find out what its visitation policy entails.

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