Pregnant Mich. inmates to be restrained less, get more time with baby

LANSING — Pregnant women held at the state’s only prison for women would be restrained less and able to spend more time with their babies after giving birth under a new policy directive announced Tuesday.

Officials said the Michigan Department of Corrections policy directive, which takes effect Nov. 22, largely formalizes policies that are already in place.

It appears intended to address concerns about use of restraints on pregnant women and having babies snatched from their mothers almost immediately after birth. Those were among the concerns Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, raised when she introduced legislation related to pregnant prisoners in 2020.

That bill stalled in committee, but Director Heidi Washington’s policy directive addresses many of the issues Geiss raised.

Geiss’s bill had called for the mother to be allowed to remain with the child for 72 hours, at the hospital, before returning to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, near Ypsilanti.

The new policy directive does not set out a specific length of time, as the bill would have, but says the department “shall not restrict the prisoner’s contact with the newborn while in their assigned patient room subject to hospital protocols,” as long as Child Protective Services has not restricted the mother’s access, or the mother has no history of abuse or neglect.

“This is an important step,” Geiss said Tuesday. “I hope that this policy is one that’s adhered to and hope that it isn’t just on paper, but will be the actual practice.”

The policy also:

  • Prohibits use of restraints during labor, and says pregnant prisoners can only be restrained up to one hour if the safety of other inmates, staff, or the public is at risk. Only front handcuffs can be used when transporting pregnant prisoners, the policy says. Typically, prisoners are also put in belly and leg chains during transport.
  • Gives every pregnant prisoner the opportunity to develop a birth plan in consultation with health care staff and work with a doula.
  • Allows mothers to pump milk if they wish to, even if they are not close to their release date, so they can breastfeed their newborns during prison visits.
  • Restricts the use of segregation for pregnant prisoners.
  • Requires the department to develop new and ongoing training for staff in managing pregnant and post-partum prisoners.

Many of the policies are subject to exceptions, if the warden approves.

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Siwatu-Salama Ra, who was sent to Women’s Huron Valley while pregnant in 2018 on a weapons charge out of Wayne County, told the Free Press in 2020 the experience left her with emotional scars.

“It is the saddest thing that I have not only heard of, but been through,” she said. “It’s like the resilience of women having to rely on something magical to survive … not only for themselves, but for their unborn babies.”

“Every pregnant Michigander deserves access to a safe birth, critical maternal healthcare, and essential post-partum supports,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a news release.

“I am proud that MDOC, Sen. Geiss, key stakeholders, and my office worked together to formalize these critical policies for treatment of pregnant and post-partum Michiganders who are incarcerated. Our actions today will improve health outcomes for moms and babies and make our corrections system more just.”

Two prisoners at Women’s Huron Valley are currently pregnant, and there have been nine deliveries so far this year, said department spokesman Chris Gautz.

Geiss has reintroduced another bill, which also died in 2020, which would create an advisory board to oversee conditions at Women’s Huron Valley.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.  Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter. 

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