Pregnant and in prison

PEWEE VALLEY, Ky. — Nikisha Robinson was excited when a pregnancy test came up positive eight months ago. Robinson was less thrilled by where the test was taken: in a Louisville, Ky., jail.

Robinson, who is due late this month, was tested shortly after being taken into custody as part of a state program that identifies pregnant inmates and sends them to a women’s prison, where the state takes care of their medical needs until the baby is born.

The program, which started in September, requires all women who were convicted but still in a county jail to undergo a pregnancy test. If the test is positive, the inmate is sent to the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Pewee Valley, about 25 minutes east of Louisville.

The goal of the program is ultimately to save the state money by identifying pregnant inmates early so any potential problem pregnancies can be identified and treated, said Dr. Scott Haas, medical director for the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Kentucky jails take in about 6,000 female inmates every year, of which about 80 percent are 18 to 50 — childbearing age, Dr. Haas said. That leaves the state administering about 5,000 tests every year. The state corrections department bought 5,000 pregnancy tests from a vendor for less than $1 a test and distributed them to every jail in Kentucky with a memo on when and how to administer the test and what to do if the inmate is pregnant.

“Less than $5,000 a year is a small price to pay for what is really the right thing to do,” Dr. Haas said. “The unborn child has not done anything to anyone. They should not be punished for the wrongs of their parents.”

The program has proved popular with inmates, particularly Robinson, who is eight months into a 15-year sentence for violating her probation on a charge of facilitation to commit robbery.

“This is better than I thought,” said Robinson, 22. “I thought it would be scary. All my questions are answered.”

Jailers across Kentucky favor the program because it cuts down on work for the staff. Roger Webb, the Floyd County jailer in eastern Kentucky, said that before the state started the pregnancy testing, female inmates were brought to the local health department for tests and medical visits.

“It’ll save us from having to spend man-hours and having an inmate out of a secure place in the jail,” Mr. Webb said.

The testing gets mixed reviews from Amanda Kreps-Long, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky. Mrs. Kreps-Long said that requiring the tests could be an invasion of privacy and sending the women to Pewee Valley might constitute a hardship by taking the inmate away from family and attorneys.

“That can be tough for a lot of women,” Mrs. Kreps-Long said.

Last year, the prison had 108 pregnant inmates with 62 deliveries, said Denise Burkett, the nurse practitioner at the prison. About two dozen inmates were expected to deliver babies this month, Miss Burkett said.

When an inmate like Robinson is brought to the prison, she is given a full physical, then doctor appointments are scheduled and prenatal care is set up, Miss Burkett said. All non-emergency medical care is performed on prison grounds, with either Miss Burkett or a doctor who contracts with the prison handling the appointment.

Pregnant inmates work while at the prison, but the jobs are restricted, with heavy lifting and climbing ladders banned. They are given an extra snack each day but otherwise are treated the same as inmates who are not expecting, Miss Burkett said.

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