What Does It Say When Jail Is a Safety Net for Pregnant Women?

Dr. Carolyn Sufrin reads to female inmates at San Francisco County Jail from her book, 'Jailcare.' (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Dr. Carolyn Sufrin is sitting before a classroom reading a passage from her book, "Jailcare."

Based on her experience as an obstetrician inside San Francisco’s jail, Sufrin is relating a passage about an inmate who recently gave birth in jail.

"She said to me, 'I mean, my worst day in jail is way better than my best day on the streets.' I had heard Kima say this before, but each time the comparison emerged, I had to pause to digest it: My worst day in jail is better than my best day on the streets. It was a profound statement," Sufrin read.

As Sufrin was reading, Jamesa had to rush out of the classroom, into an adjacent bathroom, to throw up. She’s 11 weeks pregnant. She’s also, like all the students in this classroom, an inmate at San Francisco’s women’s jail -- because of that, we’re using only her first name.

Jamesa is 25 and has a 4-year-old son at home, but said she’s never been pregnant in jail before. And, she said, it's scary.

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"I don't want to have my baby in jail, 'cause I would like to go home with my baby -- I got to go home with my first son, when I had him, I never was in jail or nothing, so I got to go home with my baby. I don't want to feel that detachment, only get three days and then from the hospital I have to go to jail and my baby gotta go somewhere else," she said.

Sufrin is here to hear these stories. She’s made this her life’s work, after she delivered a baby from a shackled inmate in Pennsylvania during her medical training. Sufrin says she was shocked -- and decided she wanted to work with incarcerated women.

From 2007 to 2013, she worked inside the San Francisco County Jail -- as an ob/gyn and then doing research for a Ph.D. in medical anthropology. Her book is based on that research, and the paradoxical nature of finding support while being incarcerated.

"The idea jail can be a site of caregiving, or of safety or of home and a place that some women might sometimes desire, like I said, that's really troubling and problematic," she said.

Dr. Carolyn Sufrin reads to female inmates at San Francisco Jail from her book.
Dr. Carolyn Sufrin reads to female inmates at San Francisco County Jail from her book. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Sufrin tells the women that to some people this may indicate the system's working -- because women are getting some medical care.

"But to read this depiction of the safety net of jail in such a practical and also fatalistic way, it ignores the punishment, and the putative structures from which this caregiving arises. It claims to see glimmer of home in fundamentally flawed system," she said.

Her message is that something is deeply wrong with our society if jail is where women -- particularly poor women of color -- get the most consistent medical care. The students seem to agree, but they say this is about more than just pregnancy.

Jamesa said the baby growing in her belly isn't the only child she's thinking about: Since her first son was born, they’ve been inseparable -- and that being there for him is the most important thing to her.

"My son is all I got. I don't got my mama -- I was in foster care. She's around, I know her, but that ain't my mama, she just had me," she said. "It hurt hecka bad to know I can’t be with my baby every day."

Tonnette, another inmate, says she’s never been pregnant in jail. But she is missing her 5-year-old son, who she talks to on the phone as much as she can.

"He has been going through this for years to the point that he's like, all right, and that makes me feel bad -- not him crying but him understanding about what I’m going through. At 5 years old, that's kinda heavy on me," she said.

The women say there’s another excruciating thing about being separated from your kids -- the chance you might lose custody of them while you’re locked up.

Shanti, 29, said she was in jail a year ago when she got papers informing her that her son's grandmother was trying to take full custody of him.

"She just took him. I asked her to hold my son until I get my life together, and have a place to live," she said. "So I was crying, because she took my son, and they took me out our of class, to a holding cell, then I am talking about committing suicide."

Shanti said a female deputy eventually came and talked to her, calming her down. But she said the default in these situations, when you're behind bars, is to be put in a cell alone, not supported.

The issue of pregnant women and mothers in prisons and jails was recently tackled by California Sen. Kamala Harris in a speech before a bipartisan criminal justice reform group in Washington, D.C.

"Right now, there are women who are shackled while they are pregnant and in some states, while they give birth. That’s wrong," Harris said. "What impacts a mother impacts a child. Because the fact is on this subject, we must keep in mind, nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers."

Harris has authored legislation to give incarcerated mothers in the federal prison system -- and their kids -- more rights.

The San Francisco Sheriff's Department does more than many jail systems -- for example, they let new moms pump their breast milk for their kids. But for the inmates in jail, they just want to be home with their kids.

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