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Born in Chains: the American Way of Birth in Prison

Thanks to its incarceration addiction, the US has the world's largest female prison population – but no plan for pregnancies

When DeShawn Balka was five-and-a-half months pregnant, she was sent to the Clayton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia for a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. As her pregnancy was high-risk, she was housed in the jail's infirmary. On the night of 18 April 2012 she started experiencing nausea and stomach pain and called for medical assistance. According to her attorney, Mike Mills, and her two cell mates, her cries for help were not only ignored but, she was warned to shut up or else the entire ward would be put on lockdown.

DeShawn Balka, who is suing Clayton County, near Atlanta, Georgia, over the death of her prematurely-born baby in prison. (Screengrab from WSBTV)Suddenly, DeShawn was screaming and her two cellmates began banging on their cell door. When the guard in charge finally came to her aid, she was found sitting on the toilet in tears. An investigation report issued by the Clayton County Sheriff's office describes in a rather chilling manner, their version of what happened next:

"When Sergeant Mayo got to cell 3508 she saw Inmate Balka sitting on the toilet crying. Sergeant Mayo told Inmate Balka to stand up so she could help the baby. Inmate Balka refused saying it hurt too much to stand. Sergeant Mayo finally convinced Inmate Balka to stand and when she did, Sergeant Mayo observed a baby face down in the toilet. Sergeant Mayo then grabbed the baby and held its face out of the water until medical arrived. LPN Eugene Andry responded and removed the baby from the toilet and started CPR."

It was too late, of course: the baby, Inyx O'Neil Balka, was never to get a shot at living, and his mother is now suing the county for neglect. The county in turn (via their investigation report) deny any wrongdoing. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the case highlights the inherent dangers of placing pregnant women in prison – and the complete lack of any program or protocol to cater to their particular needs, never mind their unborn babies' welfare, once they get there.

Thanks to the war on drugs, and a general 30-year-long incarceration binge, the number of women in prison has increased by over 400%, to the point where America can now make the not-so-proud boast of having the largest female prison population in the world. The vast majority of these women are not only non-violent first-time offenders, they are frequently the victims of violence themselves, and their crimes are often crimes of addiction, either stealing to buy the substance of that addiction, or simply being caught in possession of it. Needless to mention, women of color are far more likely to end up in prison than their white counterparts.

Yet, however deserving of jail time convicted women may or may not be, their unborn children have done nothing to earn a prison sentence. And they, at the very least, deserve the chance to good-quality pre- and post-natal care, as well as a dignified birth.

For most babies born in prison, these inalienable rights are little more than a pipe dream. In 2010, the National Women's Law Center and the Rebecca Project issued a report called Mothers behind Bars, a state-by-state report card on the treatment of incarcerated pregnant women and their babies. The report graded each state on three areas: pre-natal care, shackling policies and alternatives to incarceration. Even by the low standard of care for inmates one comes to expect from the US prison system, the conclusions are shocking.

Nearly half the states received an overall failing grade, and over two thirds received a failing grade for their lack of pre-natal care. Forty-nine out of 50 states fail to even report all incarcerated women's pregnancies and their outcomes; 43 states do not require medical examinations as a component of pre-natal care; and 36 states still engage in the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women, often with ankle, wrist and belly chains, before, after and sometimes even during labor.

The state of Georgia received an overall D Grade and an F for pre-natal care. This is ironic considering that, around the same time the report was released, the Georgia state legislature were trying to pass one of those now infamous "personhood" bills that would have awarded the fetus more rights than the mother carrying it, and would have mandated that any suspect miscarriages be investigated as potential "pre-natal murder". That bizarre bill, thankfully, did not pass. Unfortunately, the state's apparent reverence for the unborn child did not extend to those unwittingly enmeshed in its criminal justice system.

Perhaps the most important revelation of the report, though, was what there is no national standard of care, or even a national set of guidelines to help prison officials deal with a problem that clearly falls outside their normal competence. Prisons were not designed to be pre-natal care clinics, labor wards or nurseries. Apparently, this fairly obvious fact has never occurred to any of the government legislators who decided that throwing more women in prison for longer periods was an appropriate way of addressing our social ills; nor do they appear concerned about the innocent children who have suffered as a result.

DeShawn Balka is not the only woman in the state of Georgia currently mourning the loss of her child after an unnecessary prison term. Taylor Hogan also lost her baby in a Georgia jail when she was just 24-weeks pregnant. Hogan, who has also filed a lawsuit, claims to have been shackled before and after her baby died. Both of these women were in prison on trivial misdemeanor charges. The time and money the state wasted on their incarceration could have done far more good had they been invested in the disadvantaged communities that provide the US with the bulk of their prison population.

The best way to avoid similar tragedies, of course, is to stop needlessly sending women, especially pregnant women, to prison. But if the state is going to do so, one would hope it would take a tad more seriously its moral obligation to ensure that innocent babies are not neglected or harmed.