Pregnant for the first time at 33, Alice* was seeing a doctor and committed to a healthy pregnancy. Although she had longstanding mental health problems and substance use, she was prioritizing the health of her baby during pregnancy. But when she was arrested and held in the Nacogdoches County Jail for seven weeks pretrial, she was denied prenatal care for weeks and had repeated problems obtaining her life-sustaining medicine. Emotionally distraught, she was placed in solitary and treated as a problem prisoner. Both Alice and her mother Sally, a schoolteacher, were threatened with retaliation for making complaints.
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The Travis County jail is one of four nationwide — and the only in Texas — to allow new moms to breastfeed in custody.
“It’s in the interest of everybody to really assist a woman in that situation to rebuild her life and create a healthy home for her child,” said Diana Claitor, director of the nonprofit Texas Jail Project.
In 2008, the federal Bureau of Prisons passed a policy prohibiting the use of restraints on women in custody who are in labor, delivery or postpartum recovery. In 2009, Texas passed a law banning the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant women during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. But, as both the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Jail Project have found, for women in the state’s prisons, mental hospitals, and county jails, the law has not always been put into practice.
Outside of the lockups, few know how pregnant women are treated. But for years, Diana Claitor, co-founder and director of the Texas Jail Project, has been trying to get a glimpse inside. Her approach is to work with inmates and families to navigate the system, instructing them on how to file complaints and get help when they need it. In the process, she’s learned a lot about how jails fail pregnant women.
One of the first calls Claitor remembers came in 2007 from a woman whose daughter had miscarried while in jail. She asked Claitor how she could recover the body of her grandchild.
“It was so sad and such a desperate outreach from an older woman who knew of no one to go to,” Claitor said. As word of her organization spread online, she began hearing from more and more women—an outpouring that is reflected in recent data.