Kelly Parker


Pregnant women incarcerated at the time of our nation's founding faced the prospect of giving birth in their cells alone and a considerable likelihood that their infants would die. This is somewhat unsurprising. At this time infant mortality rates were high. Given the pace of advances in the treatment of pregnant women since that time, one might expect that the experience of pregnant women incarcerated in today's correctional facilities would have improved as it has for their peers on the outside. That, however, would be an unrealistic assumption. In addition to facing decidedly substandard environments in some facilities - inappropriate accommodations, widespread exposure to disease and unsanitary conditions, among other challenges - pregnant women sometimes still risk the possibility of giving birth without assistance. Such was the case of Louwanna Yeager. Ms. Yeager, upon going into labor in May 1987, was informed by guards that she would "have to wait" because no medical staff members were available to help her. The birthing process is not one amenable to being put on hold and, as such, Ms. Yeager gave birth three hours later "on a thin mat outside of the door of the clinic in the jail." Ms. Yeager's horrifying experience and those of her peers at the Kern County Jail led to a lawsuit that changed conditions for pregnant and post-partum women at the facility. Pregnant women incarcerated in correctional facilities that have been the subject of litigation have seen an improvement in the conditions they experience. However, most of these facilities would not have made these changes without the threat of litigation. Thus, those pregnant women incarcerated in facilities that have evaded legal scrutiny may still face conditions not much improved than those endured by Ms. Yeager and others like her. This article illustrates the challenges faced by pregnant women incarcerated in correctional facilities, their rights, and ways in which change for these women can be effected as well as programs that have provided clear improvements for their care. The treatment of pregnant inmates merits special attention - especially in the competition for scarce correctional resources - because of the particular complications for these women and their infants which can result from improper care.