At least three pregnant women incarcerated at the Perryville prison in Buckeye, Arizona, say the prison induced their labor early against their will, Arizona Republic reports. Two of the women, Stephanie Pearson and Desiree Romero, had their labor induced at 39 weeks last year. Another woman, Jocelyn Heffner, had her labor induced at 37 weeks—once in 2020, and once in 2022. The women told the outlet they were informed that this is a set policy at the prison, and medical records the newspaper reviewed have corroborated their claims.
While research shows labor can safely be induced early at around 39 weeks, experts say that denying pregnant people agency in their birthing can result in enduring physical and emotional trauma, to the detriment of the pregnant person and the baby. Speaking to Arizona Republic, all three of the women said they believed they had been induced to reduce liability for the prison—not for their own safety. Pearson said a prison obstetrician told her “they induce everyone because they don’t want anyone going into labor here.”
She continued, “I’m quite used to the prison making all these decisions for us, because we are still state property.”
Romero told the outlet that a medical provider for the prison told her that inducing early labor among incarcerated people is their set policy “so that we don’t go into labor in prison.” The policy allegedly emerged after incidents in which incarcerated pregnant people at the Perryville prison gave birth in their cells—one woman gave birth in her toilet in 2019.
Corene Kendrick, attorney and deputy director at the ACLU national prison project, told Jezebel that the policy reflects a systemic problem of prisons lacking the resources to care for pregnant people. For the last decade, the ACLU has led a class action lawsuit against the prison system for mistreatment of incarcerated people in the prison health care system. “It appears that the response to what we uncovered about the woman giving birth in her cell toilet a few years ago was that they would just schedule everyone for induction,” Kendrick said.
The Arizona Department of Corrections and Centurion, the prison health care contractor working with the state prison system until October 2022, didn’t comment for Arizona Republic’s reporting or immediately respond to requests for comment from Jezebel. NaphCare, which is the Arizona Department of Corrections’ current health provider as of last October, denied to Arizona Republic that it has any policy requiring labor to be induced, but confirmed that since October, one incarcerated patient was induced “per hospital specialist’s orders as a maternal-fetal safety precaution.” NaphCare told the outlet that there are currently six pregnant people in the state prison system.
Pearson said that having her labor induced against her will took a significant physical toll on her. “It makes your body do something it’s not ready for, and the baby isn’t ready for,” she told the newspaper. “It’s a lot more active labor, which means a lot more contractions, and harder contractions.” After the birth, she “was in so much more pain than my other ones, and it took a lot longer for my body to heal.” Heffner told Arizona Republic she “felt like I was viewed as a liability and walking around a prison yard nine months pregnant didn’t comfort this state institution.”
“I’ve noticed, as a doula, when people feel that they have a choice in the matter, there’s way less trauma,” one doula, Kierra Otis, told Arizona Republic. Doulas provide physical and emotional support to pregnant people. “But if that agency is taken away, and the person who’s giving birth is having this trauma, it’s going to impact their ability to parent, and it’s going to have an impact on the child as well.”
Pearson, Heffner, and Romero told the newspaper that while they weren’t shackled and were granted allotted time with their newborn babies, as required by the state’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act passed in 2021, the medical care they did receive was lacking. The women said the “special prenatal diet” they were provided by the Perry prison was merely an extra daily helping of milk and a peanut butter sandwich.
Two of the women say they’re receiving medical bills for the prenatal services they were provided in prison, despite how the state prison system is responsible for these costs. In 2019, several people incarcerated in the Arizona prison system reported being pursued by debt collectors for health-related costs incurred in prison—despite how incarcerated people aren’t supposed to pay for their health care.
Currently, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has no policy on inducing labor for pregnant incarcerated people. Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Pregnant Women in Custody Act, or HR 6878, which grants incarcerated pregnant people rights to basic medical care and protects them from solitary confinement in the third trimester. But the bill doesn’t address forced induced labor. Kendrick says the lack of written policies around inducing labor for incarcerated people on the state and federal level means it’s ultimately unclear how prevalent this practice may be. “We just shouldn’t be incarcerating pregnant women in the first place,” she said. “Because there are so many problems within within a carceral setting.”
Mistreatment of pregnant people is rampant—and sometimes fatal—in the prison system across the country, where they face higher maternal mortality rates. Against all medical guidance, several states still allow the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people. And even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, abortion has alway been nearly impossible for incarcerated people to access, as most prisons force them to pay out-of-pocket and don’t inform them of their right to abortion.
Last November, among hundreds of formerly incarcerated women in New York suing the state for sexual abuse they faced behind bars, one woman said she had been impregnated by rape, placed in solitary confinement as punishment, and transferred to a different prison while experiencing severe complications from an ectopic pregnancy. She was left infertile by the experience.