Investigations Human Rights

Women, Incarcerated: Investigative Series Shows Systemic Abuses of Women in Prisons and Jails

Sharona Coutts & Zoe Greenberg

In this first part of Rewire's Women, Incarcerated series, we focus on one woman's prison time—which involved a high-risk pregnancy, forced induced labor, and shackling—to illustrate the problems that thousands of women face behind bars.

This is the first article in Rewire’s Women, Incarcerated series. You can read the other pieces in the series that have been published so far here.

Keeley Schenwar learned she was pregnant the same day she was arrested. That spring of 2013, she didn’t pee on a stick and study the results in the bathroom; there was no moment of elation. Instead, a nurse at the Cook County Jail in Chicago led Schenwar to a separate part of the facility, away from the other women. When Schenwar asked why, the nurse broke the news.

Schenwar, who was just 23 at the time, with warm brown eyes and glossy black hair, barely knew what to say. She had been struggling with a heroin addiction for more than five years. For the second time, she’d been caught stealing from a Walgreens—medicines, makeup, razors—anything she could sell to local corner stores to scramble together the $400 or $500 she needed to pay for her addiction.

She’d been in and out of county jails for years, but this time she was headed to state prison, and she was pregnant.

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“I cried,” she told Rewire. “I didn’t want to tell anyone I was in jail. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was pregnant.”

Over the course of her incarceration, Schenwar experienced two instances of human rights abuses linked to her pregnancy. She also joined the ranks of a growing group in the United States: women who are incarcerated.

While women make up a small share of all those detained in local, state, and federal prisons and jails, their numbers are growing. The number of women in state and federal prisons jumped by 646 percent between 1980 and 2012—from around 25,000 to more than 200,000—one-and-a-half times the speed at which the incarceration for men increased during the same period. In 2012, more than 200,000 women were held in prisons or jails, according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that has tracked these issues for more than 25 years.

The surge in incarceration disproportionately affects women of color, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2010, Black women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women (133 versus 47 per 100,000), while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women.

Experts told Rewire that, because corrections systems were created with men in mind, the facilities, practices, and policies remain ill-suited to the particular needs of women behind bars.

“There’s been a tremendous neglect of incarcerated women’s medical needs because, overall, they’re a small proportion of the incarcerated population: 9 percent of prisons, and 11 percent of jails,” said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University.

In fact, federal, state, and local officials charged with overseeing corrections facilities collect virtually no consistent data about how women are treated in a system made for men, Rewire found in a five-month investigation. This week, we will publish a collection of stories based on that reporting.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, when asked for a national count of corrections facilities that house women, could only provide Rewire with data that was a decade old. It showed that in 2005, there were a total of 1,821 state, federal, and privately run facilities, of which 187 facilities were authorized to hold only female inmates, and 276 were authorized to house both males and females.

The dearth of information points to the invisibility of, and lack of concern for, incarcerated women, experts told Rewire, and makes it difficult to determine how often abuses occur.

In our Women, Incarcerated series, we have detailed some of the major themes that emerged from our review of hundreds of lawsuits, public records requests, and interviews with experts, public officials, and currently and formerly incarcerated women.

Our findings show the existence of deep, systemic problems in the way that the criminal justice system deals with women.

While some of the egregious abuses of incarcerated women are well known—shackling of pregnant women, and rampant sexual abuse in some facilities—Rewire has identified a host of other problems that receive virtually no attention from mainstream media.

The problems include substandard conditions for pregnant prisoners; widespread failure to provide treatment or medical care for women with drug dependency, who comprise the overwhelming majority of women inmates; frequent denial of care for women experiencing miscarriage; forced induction of birth; and, ultimately, the termination of women’s parental rights because of rigid federal and state laws ostensibly intended to protect children. Articles later this week will delve deeper into these issues.

Like Schenwar, the majority of women behind bars are of reproductive age (the median age of incarcerated women in the United States is 34) and more than four-fifths suffer a serious substance abuse disorder, often related to prior trauma. The vast majority—84 percent—are behind bars for non-violent crimes, usually related to their drug dependency or social marginalization, according to a 2012 report for the Bureau of Justice Assistance that surveyed nearly 500 inmates in urban and rural jails in multiple states—one of the very few national studies of incarcerated women.

In other words, for women, incarceration frequently amounts to punishment for poverty, mental illness, addiction, and abuse, experts said.

“We’ve seen a skyrocket in the prison population overall, and women have increased faster than men,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Rewire. “That’s a direct result of the fact that so many low-level offenders end up in prison or jail where previously they may have been diverted into the community, or had access to mental health care.”

Schenwar’s story is representative of many women’s experience in incarceration. In this first part of our Women, Incarcerated series, we focus on Schenwar’s prison time—which involved a high-risk pregnancy, forced induced labor, and shackling—to illustrate the problems that thousands of women face behind bars.

Inadequate Food, Conditions for Pregnant Inmates

As with many women who are incarcerated, Schenwar’s crimes were related to her drug dependency.

Her criminal record shows arrests for thefts, trespassing, a DUI, and parole violations. Schenwar was living with her boyfriend at the time she was arrested, and he too was struggling with heroin.

Keeley Schenwar and her daughter.

Keeley Schenwar and her daughter.

After finding out that she was pregnant, Schenwar hoped to avoid going to prison. She reasoned that the judge would go light on her, due to her condition, and allow her to do community service. Instead, she was sentenced to a year at the Logan Correctional Center, a place where inmates wear blue and white, but pregnant prisoners wear pink. Apart from that, the facility makes few accommodations for pregnant prisoners.

Even something as basic as food posed problems. In her four months of pregnancy during incarceration, Schenwar recalls being hungry “all the time.”

“When you’re pregnant, you want to eat,” Schenwar told Rewire. “It wasn’t like I expected my craving foods to be delivered to my cell,” she said, but she needed more than the extra apple or egg and carton of milk that were provided to pregnant inmates every day.

She also recalls that pregnant women, like all prisoners, had to walk through the open yard to access the mess hall, whether it was snowing or brutally hot.

The failure of corrections facilities to provide adequate food for pregnant prisoners emerged as a pattern across many states, our research found. Most recently, the Correctional Association of New York released a damning report, based on five years of interviews and legal research, revealing that New York’s state facilities were also failing to provide sufficient food and acceptable living conditions for pregnant inmates. And Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, told us that the lack of plentiful, healthy food is a frequent problem for pregnant inmates in Texas as well.

Despite the inadequate food and conditions, Schenwar says she received good medical care while she was incarcerated. She recalls regular visits to an OB-GYN, and frequent ultrasounds. In fact, for many pregnant inmates, incarceration affords them the first opportunity to receive prenatal care. (For more on prenatal care for people in prisons and jails, read our Women, Incarcerated article on that issue.)

Schenwar is quick to explain that she wasn’t seeking sympathy. But she says that the guards reacted to her requests, and those of other pregnant prisoners, with demeaning comments.

“The officers judged us constantly,” she said. “If you would complain, they would say, ‘You put yourself here. You were doing drugs and pregnant. I don’t feel bad for you.’”

While at the prison, Schenwar maintained her use of methadone, as prescribed by her doctor. Abruptly ceasing opioid use is extremely dangerous during pregnancy, as it can lead to miscarriage. However, Schenwar’s methadone use created an unexpected complication: It disqualified her from transferring to the Decatur Facility, which has a nationally recognized prison nursery program that allows inmates to stay with their babies for the first year of their lives. So Schenwar knew that she would be separated from her daughter as soon as she gave birth.

“You’re Not Going to ‘Fall Out’ in My Yard”—Forced Induction of Labor in Illinois Prisons

What most upset Schenwar was the prison’s decision to induce her labor when she did not want to be induced—an act that constitutes a human rights violation, experts told Rewire.

At 5 a.m. in early September, Schenwar was on her way to the mess hall with the other prisoners.

“Schenwar, fall back,” she recalls one of the guards saying, as she walked behind the other inmates heading to breakfast.

Two weeks earlier, the prison doctor had informed Schenwar that her delivery would be induced. Schenwar had tried to object, saying that her baby was not ready to be born, and that she wanted to wait until her labor started naturally. Inducing labor can be risky for mothers and their babies. Studies have shown induction to be associated with higher rates of cesarean sections, longer stays in the hospital, and greater blood loss for women giving birth.

But, Schenwar says, the doctor made it clear that she did not have a choice, and when she still objected, she says the doctor called prison guards.

“I had three, maybe four, guards surrounding me saying, ‘I don’t know where you think you are. This is our prison. … You’re not going to fall out in my yard or in the mess hall and cause some kind of chaos,’” she said. “I was scared and I was having a baby and I was in prison. I went back to my cell and I cried, because I knew I would be alone.”

So, when guards told Schenwar to fall back, she thought she was in trouble. But instead guards told her it was time to give birth.

“They explained that because I was being induced that day, which I did not know, they said I could not eat,” she recalled in an interview with Rewire.

When Rewire first sought comment from the Illinois Department of Corrections in relation to Schenwar’s allegation of forced induction, Tom Shaer, who was then the director of communications, did not reply to our specific questions, but wrote in an email, “Inmate anecdotes are often either wholly inaccurate or grossly exaggerated. Not always, but often.”

This notion—that prisoners, and especially women prisoners, are liars—permeates the dozens of cases we reviewed where prisoners suffered miscarriages, still-births, and even deaths. (These cases are detailed in future articles in the Women, Incarcerated series.) While there are undoubtedly instances of false allegations, time and again prisoner’s allegations have been borne out in litigation and federal investigations.

Shaer has since left the department, and his replacement, Nicole Wilson, told us in an email that induced births are an “option” for prisoners:

Pregnant inmates consult with their physician on nutrition and birthing options to make decisions that best meet each individuals’ needs.  Offenders whose pregnancies are deemed high risk are encouraged to elect induction so they can be transferred to Bloomington where the hospital can meet their specific needs for a safe delivery. [sic]

In a later email, Wilson changed her stance, saying instead that Schenwar’s methadone treatment meant she was deemed to be a high-risk patient, and that the “decision to induce would have been made by the OB/GYN and would have been made for the benefit of both mother and baby.”

Wilson said that Schenwar had not signed a “refusal of treatment,” which, Wilson said, was offered to prisoners who did not want their births induced.

However, Rewire was able to speak with Kendra Smith, who was also pregnant while incarcerated at Logan. Smith recounted that guards also tried to force her to induce her delivery, but she resisted, involving the warden and the prison’s family services officer. Smith said she recalled similar pressure being put on a third pregnant prisoner incarcerated at Logan.

According to Gail Smith, founder of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), the Illinois Department of Corrections seems to have initiated a practice of requiring incarcerated women to have induced labor.

“Every woman that I have spoken with after release who has given birth inside in the past year has been induced,” Smith told Rewire.

In a close examination of cases involving the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women, Rewire found hints that induction may be a standard practice at corrections facilities in other states as well.

Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Rewire that forced induced labor constitute clear human rights violations of pregnant prisoners.

“Any forced induced labor is a human rights violation, even if the pregnant person isn’t incarcerated, because people have a fundamental human right to bodily integrity and to refuse unwanted medical intervention,” she said.

Diaz-Tello said that the stories from Illinois are consistent with what her organization has been hearing from other states. For instance, she said that she had worked with a Texas woman who was forced to undergo a cesarean section while incarcerated, because the doctor was only scheduled to be at the facility for one day.

“The fact that it is happening in prison, where people are even more deprived of power than in a medical institution—that makes it even worse,” Diaz-Tello said.

“All Female Inmates Are an Escape Threat”

In addition to the forced induction, Schenwar described a lonely and traumatic labor, during which she was shackled to the hospital bed.

“There’s a guard on the couch reading magazines as your whole life is torn apart,” she said. “They don’t let any family come. After you have the baby, they shackle you to the bed at their discretion. You hold your baby and then they take her and you go back to prison.”

At the time, Illinois still had an official policy that allowed prisoners to be shackled as soon as they were “no longer pregnant,” said Wilson, the corrections department’s spokesperson. That policy was changed in November 2013 so that “inmates who’d recently delivered a child could also go unrestrained for a pre-determined period of time.”

Despite media attention to the issue, shackling of pregnant inmates remains common, with the majority of states still permitting the barbaric practice. Even in states where shackling is theoretically banned, local activists and incarcerated women say legal loopholes mean that many pregnant inmates still find themselves bound in metal chains during transportation to the hospital, and after birth.

For instance, the 2009 law that barred the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in Texas contains an exception for women deemed to be a flight risk, but doesn’t define what exactly that means.

At a 2012 meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a commissioner “spoke publicly about his belief that all female inmates are an escape threat and that therefore the exception to the bar on use of restraints would always apply,” according to a letter drafted to the commission’s chairwoman by then-state Sen. Wendy Davis. (Rewire obtained a draft of the email.)

In other words, even women in active labor and birth should be seen as escape threats.

Diana Claitor of the Texas Jails Project told Rewire that better monitoring of each incident of shackling is required to ensure the law is being properly enforced.

The emotional impact of shackling, including post-partum depression, can be profound, Claitor said.

“You suddenly feel yourself in the position of being rolled around like a piece of garbage chained to a table, and the other women there [at the hospital] shrink away in horror that you’re some kind of crazed animal that has to be shackled.”

The experience of being pregnant in prison, forcibly induced, and ultimately shackled during delivery certainly left Schenwar with a sense of shame.

Her journal from October of that year—a month after her daughter was born—shows the young woman’s regret at the situation she was in.

“You held my hand just a few hours after I gave birth, wrapped your fingers tightly around my thumb and I knew as you focused your eyes on mine without turning away that I’d love you in every way, each day for the rest of eternity,” Schenwar wrote. “I tried not to sleep, knowing we only had a short time together. Shackles tied my ankles to the hospital bed. You’re the daughter of a prisoner, twice convicted felon, all result of a heroin conviction.”

“I’ll spend the rest of my life making this up to you,” she wrote.

Schenwar was released from prison in 2014, and is now sober. She is successfully caring for her daughter, as well as working with other mothers who have recently been released from prison or jail.

“Just because you’ve been to prison three or five times, doesn’t mean you have to go back,” she said. “People get past it, and they have careers and they have lives and they have families.”

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