Photograph of Congresswoman

Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. (Courtesy Photo)

Women who give birth behind federal prison bars need better health care services for themselves and their newborns or their lives will be at risk, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said at a May 12 press briefing on Capitol Hill.

Surrounded by national advocates for women’s health, Jackson Lee introduced the Stop Infant Mortality and Recidivism Reduction Act of 2016 (H.R. 5130), a criminal justice bill that would establish a pilot program to provide critical-stage, developmental nurseries in federal prisons for children born to inmates.

The first 30 months of life are the most critical time for newborns who desperately need nurturing and bonding with their mothers, Jackson Lee explained. Pregnant women are often handcuffed during childbirth and newborns are often placed in foster care, within 24 hours after birth. Pregnant inmates are not given the expected delivery dates – in order to stop women from attempting to escape prison, Jackson Lee said.

“We cannot afford to lose any more of our nation’s children, or continue to break the nurturing bonds between mother and child,” said Jackson Lee, adding that incarcerated mothers risk depression, infections, and chronic stress-related illnesses.

Jackson Lee is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. She said the legislation has a good chance of receiving bipartisan support from other House lawmakers.

Advocates for Women’s health attending the briefing said the legislation could improve the health of newborns and lower the number of women who return to prison as repeat offenders. They cited CDC statistics showing that the infant mortality rate for babies separated from their incarcerated mothers is 7.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births for Hispanic inmates and 14.3 for Black inmates. By comparison, the national infant mortality rate is 5.96 deaths per 1,000 live births.

“It is critical that imprisoned pregnant women and women with infants, who are disproportionately women of color, receive the care and attention they deserve,” said Linda Goler Blount, president of Black Women’s Health Imperative, a D.C.-based national women’s organization.

Blount said studies show that children separated from their imprisoned mothers and placed into social services, often suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, noted that 10 states already provide nursery services to women in prison. “The tens of thousands of babies born to incarcerated mothers each year must have that special close relationship with their birth mother during the early months of life,” O’Neill said.

Jackson Lee’s legislation would allow children to stay with their mothers in prison for 30 months while risk and need assessments of mothers are conducted. Mothers would also receive education and counseling in child development, parenting skills, domestic violence, vocational training, and substance abuse.