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By Hannah Critchfield
The call Beth had been waiting for came unceremoniously in late April.
“Your daughter’s being released,” the Carteret County probation officer told her.
Beth breathed a sigh of relief, for both for her child and grandchild – her daughter Michele was serving a five-month sentence inside the coronavirus outbreak-riddled state women’s prison, and she was eight months pregnant.
She immediately called the facility, to see when she should make the three-hour drive to Raleigh to pick her up.
“But I couldn’t get with anyone who knew anything,” she said.
It wasn’t until that night, when Michele herself called, that her mother heard the news: She wasn’t getting out after all.
“The prison made a mistake,” confirmed Officer Edmond Wallace, Michele’s probation officer.
“So I tried calling the rest of that Friday, and then that next week, to find some answers,” said Beth, who requested NC Health News only use her first name and Michele’s middle name. “And I got the run-around, ‘Oh, I don’t know, she was getting out, I sent the paperwork out there, and there must have been a mix-up on something.’
“Nobody would give a straight answer,” she said. “And that’s the way it’s been the whole time.”
At the time of North Carolina Health News’ interview with Beth, Michele was one of six pregnant women who remained incarcerated in North Carolina’s prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, a seventh arrived from a local jail just this past week. Though others have been released due to the pandemic, these women continue to wade through early motherhood – and an outbreak – behind bars.
And confusion remains about when, or if, they’ll be released.
Prisons throughout the United States have been likened to incubators for COVID-19; people who are incarcerated are far more likely to contract the virus due to crowded conditions that make it difficult to maintain CDC-recommended guidelines for social distancing. Consequently, many advocates nationwide have called for the release of vulnerable populations from prisons and jails, including pregnant people.
North Carolina is one of 10 states to have released some of its pregnant prisoners from correctional facilities due to coronavirus, according to a recent Guardian analysis. Due to conviction restrictions and a somewhat-opaque review process, more remain than have been released, despite an outbreak at the women’s prison that has infected more than 90 people, leaving family members confused and worried as their loved ones must carry their pregnancies to term behind bars.
A high number of pregnant prisoners
North Carolina incarcerates a high number of pregnant women annually. Though the North Carolina Department of Correction does not publicly post these numbers, according to a public records request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2016, 200 pregnant women were admitted to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. By comparison, in Georgia, which boasts a similar statewide population size, incarcerated just 85 pregnant women that year.
Sixty-three of North Carolina’s pregnant prisoners were held on behalf of a local jail – meaning they had not yet been convicted of a crime.
Outbreak at the women’s prison
NCCIW, the state’s primary correctional facility for women, is where the remaining incarcerated pregnant women reside. Five pregnant prisoners have already been released, according to John Bull, spokesperson for the NC Department of Public Safety. Fourteen others have had sentences naturally expire during the months of the pandemic.
In April of this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on and much of the country remained under lockdown, the prison continued to send out female inmates to work in government buildings, a Charlotte Observer investigation found, despite official DPS narratives that claimed these work release programs had stopped – especially to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus – on March 25. The program only ceased after a prisoner tested positive for the virus on April 16.
It was the same day Beth said she received the call about Michele’s release that wasn’t.
Within weeks, NCCIW had the second-largest outbreak in the state prison system. To date, 91 staff and inmates within the facility have tested positive for the virus. All but five have since recovered, according to Bull.
Pregnant prisoners have been separated from the general population, according to Bull, and are now housed together as a cohort. They eat meals and have recreation time together. And though advocates have expressed concern that this segregation is a de facto form of solitary confinement – North Carolina does not ban solitary confinement of pregnant women – DPS asserts that the women maintain the same privileges as general population inmates.
“They’re separated only in the sense that they’re separated in their own little world of pregnant women,” said Nicole Sullivan, director of reentry, programs and services at DPS. “But they’re not in ‘lockdown.’”
Assessing the risk
The novel coronavirus’s impact on pregnancy needs further study. Early research suggests pregnant women do not seem to experience more severe illness from COVID-19, but the virus may interfere with blood flow between mother and baby and damage the placenta. People who are incarcerated are in general more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at risk, said Carolyn Sufrin, an OB-GYN and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies the intersection between reproductive health care and incarceration. Outbreaks at prison facilities may additionally limit already constrained carceral healthcare systems’ ability to provide non-COVID related services such as prenatal care, she added, as resources are diverted toward caring for people with the virus.
And when a mother-to-be contracts the virus, two people are at risk.
Andrea Circle Bear, the first female prisoner in the U.S. to die of COVID-19, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she arrived at a Texas correctional facility in late March. She was unconscious and on a ventilator when she went into labor on April 1 – her baby was delivered by cesarean section because she was unable to push. Circle Bear never got to meet her child – she never woke up.
She was 30 years old, the same age as Michele.
Criminal justice reform advocates have said Circle Bear’s death raises questions about the necessity of incarcerating pregnant women during a pandemic and exposed the underside of a system already ill-equipped to provide adequate reproductive care.
Pregnant women who are serving a sentence in prison deliver their babies in a hospital, but they may do so while handcuffed – North Carolina has no laws banning shackling of the state’s pregnant prisoners. They’re given little bonding time under normal circumstances – from 48 to 72 hour with their baby – and safety precautions surrounding COVID-19 may decrease this even more, according to Lauren Kuhlik, from the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.
“Someone who’s symptomatic for COVID or tests positive for COVID is likely separated immediately,” said Kuhlik. “If you’re incarcerated, that means that you might not get any time to bond with your child.”
Prior to giving birth, nutrition for incarcerated pregnant women is often inadequate, according to Sufrin of Johns Hopkins. North Carolina is one of 39 states in the country that has no specified nutritional policy for pregnant prisoners.
NCCIW, even in the absence of an outbreak, does not have air conditioning, making life inside the concrete building particularly uncomfortable for people who are pregnant and hormonal.
The risk is higher for black women, who are twice as likely to be imprisoned as white women, according to a 2019 Sentencing Project study. Even outside the confines of prison, black women statewide are three times more likely to die during childbirth, according to NC Department of Health and Human Services data, largely due to a long history of systemic racism that ignores or undervalues black women’s health experiences and negatively impacts the level of care they receive.
Who gets released?
To limit the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners, DPS began releasing certain inmates early in April under a program known as “extended limits of confinement,” which allows people to continue serving their sentences outside of correctional facilities. To be eligible, prisoners need to meet at least one of several criteria – one of those is pregnancy. According to Bull, a number of the pregnant women incarcerated by the state are “still being considered for ELC.”
According to an affidavit filed by the state in the ongoing NAACP et al. v. Cooper et al. case, acquiring ELC is a complicated, multi-step process. It first involves sorting potentially eligible inmates by age, crimes, projected release date, and underlying health issues to determine order of priority. Inmates must be screened for outstanding pending charges and potentially receive approval from the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys to move forward. Crime victims may need to be notified, DPS must review “medical and mental health needs” and ensure inmates have a 30-day supply of any required medication, and a resident plan must be reviewed and approved by Community Corrections. After all these steps are taken, DPS will determine a transfer date for the person’s release to ELC.
There’s no guarantee for how long this process will take, leaving incarcerated pregnant women and their loved ones in limbo.
Michele never got that far. Unbeknownst to her mother, she’d been barred from the start due to her charges of “assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury,” even though she was sentenced to a short term. Bull confirmed that Michele was not eligible for release, as is the case for all inmates convicted of “violent crimes.”
“The secretary, at his discretion, has decided it is inconsistent with public safety to offer ELC to these categories of offenders at this time,” the May 8 court filing said about DPS Secretary Erik Hooks’ decision.
In hindsight, she said it made the call from the probation officer, and the mistake of the prison, all the more painful.
“This is sort of an example of: Does it make sense to be drawing these lines, or to make assumptions about someone’s public risk?” said Kuhlik, noting that Michele’s sentence is over in late June. “In this particular situation, you have someone who is nine months pregnant and was going to be released soon anyway.”
“This [crisis] deserves a response that is individual in nature,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, campaign manager with the ACLU of North Carolina, who herself was pregnant with twins while incarcerated. “We can’t just have formulas – because there are always going to be people who get left behind in that formula. Yes, there can be like mass releases of large categories of people, but there also needs to be a nuanced, detailed look at everyone who’s there.”
Postpartum in prison
Last Friday, June 5, Michele gave birth to her first child while in DPS custody. The baby girl, Mila, is now with her grandmother Beth.
Her mother returned to the prison shortly after giving birth.
“When this virus hit, I wanted her out, for the safety of her and the baby,” said Beth. “But she’s still in there.”
To date, the DPS website continues to state the agency is “trying to transition all pregnant offenders out of prison.”
Note: On Monday, June 8, the judge presiding over the NACCP et al v. Cooper lawsuit, which sued the state over inadequate prison conditions for preventing the spread of the COVID-19, ruled in favor of the NAACP, ACLU of NC, and other plaintiffs. It’s unclear how this will impact potential release of pregnant prisoners, who were named as a vulnerable population in the lawsuit.
“It depends on whether DPS is willing to revise its own [ELC] criteria, and that’s something that is completely within the control of DPS,” said Irena Como, senior attorney with ACLU of NC. “But it’s been encouraged by the court to do that.”
Both plaintiffs and DPS will submit a report outlining new strategies for release of vulnerable populations in prisons by June 22.