About 7 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant for some of their time in prison
Whether you’re innocent until proven guilty in a U.S.court of law is often debated, but what of the innocents born into the criminal justice system?
Six-month-old, Messiah Villa, is one such innocent, delivered while his mother served a prison sentence.
Messiah’s grandmother, Trini Encinias, said her 23-year-old daughter, Britney Encinias, was sentenced to six years in prison for attempted murder while she was pregnant with Messiah. “I thought they would take it into consideration that she was pregnant. The judge did not care whatsoever,” Trini said.
In prison, few prenatal options were offered to Britney, and the prison even gave her an opiate replacement that was unsafe for pregnant women.
When Britney’s water broke, she was transferred from a women’s prison in Grants to the University of New Mexico Hospital. She stayed there for three days suffering from excessive blood loss, high blood pressure, and anemia. Messiah was born premature and placed in intensive care.
Britney was transferred back to the prison, taken off medication and placed in maximum security again, Trini said.
She wanted to breastfeed, but was told it would be difficult to get the milk to Messiah from prison. “They don’t have no support, no breast pumps, medical doesn’t even come to see you,” Trini said.
Two bills that could help children like Messiah and their mothers are on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk. Senate Bill 277 would make pregnant women eligible for early release, and House Bill 277 would require correctional facilities to develop a policy for lactating inmates.
Both bills passed the House and Senate March 18. The lactational bill passed unanimously. The release of pregnant women bill passed the Senate 33-6 and the House 42-18. Martinez has until April 7 to sign them into law.
A Focus on the Innocent
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, sponsored the bill requiring the court to consider pregnancy status. The mother would be released prior to the baby’s birth and up to 18 months after the baby is born, or as long as medically necessary. Under Ortiz y Pino’s bill, he mother may be put under house arrest or probation during that period and finish her sentence later.
Ortiz y Pino said pediatricians and psychologists spoke in favor of the bill requiring policies for lactating women, while the bill requiring release of pregnant women had some opposition. “There are some people who just don’t like letting people out of prison. They think they should have to pay the full price of the crime. This ignores implications for the baby,” he said.
Dr. Hannah Watson from Milagro Clinic at UNMH, a substance abuse treatment center for pregnant women, testified in support of prisons requiring women’s prisons to adopt lactational policies. Watson treated a patient who was prevented from pumping milk in prison because a breast pump was considered dangerous in the facility. “This isn’t about politics. it’s about supporting healthy moms and healthy babies,” she said.
Lissa Knudsen, chair of the NM Breastfeeding Task Force, said there are no U.S. laws that focus specifically on breastfeeding. Even those that prohibit shackling pregnant inmates in New Mexico date back to only 2008.
According to a 2010 report by the National Women’s Law Center, about 85 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. The Child Welfare League of America estimates that about 7 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant for some of their time in prison. While New Mexico ranks among the highest nationally for treatment of incarcerated women who are pregnant or mothers, the state still does not have options for breastfeeding or prison nurseries.
Most states do not require prisons to offer even the most basic services for pregnant women – such as prenatal check-ups.
Catching up with the Times
Knudsen said prison policy has historically focused on a male population. “Correctional facilities were designed for men, not women,” she said. She attributed this to the fact that the male incarceration rate is higher. But that is changing. From 1990 to 2014, the population of female inmates increased by almost 200 percent
NWLC notes that female incarceration is the highest it has ever been, and that most of those women are serving sentences for drug-related or non-violent offenses.
Johnny Vizcaino contributed to this report.