By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service
LANSING — New bills would change procedures for restraining and isolating pregnant inmates in Michigan, a move intended to improve conditions for them.
They would ban use of restraints, increase the time mothers could spend with their newborns after delivery, allow mothers to breastfeed while serving their sentences and mandate services by a doula — a trained professional who provides physical and emotional support before, during and after childbirth — on request.
Typically between five and 10 women are pregnant at a time at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township. It’s the state’s sole female-only prison, according to the Department of Corrections, andhouses just over 1,100 women.
The bills sponsored by Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, with Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, among the cosponsors, are pending in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
The changes are necessary to improve conditions for incarcerated females, according to Merissa Kovach, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“The realities of pregnancy in prison are pretty terrifying,” Kovach said. “We believe that no woman should have to give birth in current prison conditions because it adds pain and fear for women who are already going through a difficult process.”
The organization advocates for expanded civil rights and liberties.
“These bills are a good first step to making sure women have the care and the support they need,” Kovach said.
According to Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Corrections Department, many mandates in the bills are already in place at Huron Valley.
Gautz said the department allows relatives to be present during delivery, partners with a doula initiative and doesn’t restrain women during labor.
Gautz said, “There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation from individuals who were previously in the [prison] system making claims that simply aren’t true.”
He said the confusion could have been avoided with better communication between Corrections and legislators. “A lot of times what happens is that lawmakers will work with various departments on legislation, to put it together and develop policy, but that didn’t happen here.”
For example, one provision in the legislation would require the department to offer a pregnancy test to all female prisoners. However, Gautz said Huron Valley inmates already must take two pregnancy tests before they go into the general prison population.
According to Gautz, the department hasn’t taken a position on the legislation yet.
“There’s a difference between well thought-out policies that are crafted by our health care professionals and a bill that is close to our policy,” Gautz said. “We have to discuss how these bills would affect our policy before we take an official position.”
According to Jacqueline Williams, a program associate at the American Friends Service Committee in Ypsilanti, the legislation is necessary.
“There are three things — non-shackling, doulas and one family support person in the delivery room — that the department is already doing,” Williams said. “However, these things have to be codified in law or they can be changed at any time.”
She said her organization wants to ensure that all mothers can spend time with their newborns if they want to.
“We wanted to remove from a warden the ability to limit contact because right now, if a woman has ever had Child Protective Services involvement, the warden has discretion about if she gets contact with her baby,” Williams said. “Limiting that contact is damage that can never be undone.”
Williams said the bills also would allow every mother to spend 72 hours with her child after delivery.
“Right now, for a vaginal birth the mother gets 24 hours, and for a C-section she gets 48, so there are women who actually opt for an unnecessary C-section to have that extra time,” Williams said.
The proposal would also ensure that mothers aren’t shackled for the entire duration of their pregnancy, she said.
“It has been years since the department shackled during active labor, but they do shackle nine-month pregnant women during transport to labor,” Williams said. “If the correctional officers aren’t listening to the medical professional, they have the ability to shackle immediately postpartum as well.
“From our perspective, someone who just had a baby isn’t going to overpower correctional officers and take off running,” she said.
According to Kate Stroud, the interim executive director of the Michigan Prison Doula Initiative, doulas have been working with Corrections since 2019. Since then, “we’ve served about 30 women, and we have 100% participation.”
She said the organization plans to continue with or without the legislation passing.
“Right now, we have a five-year contract and a good relationship with the department, so I would think moving forward we’d keep that going either way,” Stroud said.
However, Stroud said the legislation would be helpful by adding a provision for mothers who want to breastfeed.
The bills, she said, would “better support the important transition to life for these mothers and babies while in the system.”