Pregnancy testing. Advice on healthy eating. Postpartum care. These are some of the services that Tennessee jails and prisons are now required to offer the state’s growing population of female inmates.
That’s thanks to a new bill (SB 1839/HB 1651), passed by the legislature last week.
There’s little data on the number of pregnant women in correctional facilities. But a recent report by Gov. Bill Lee’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force found that the number of female prisoners in Tennessee increased 47% between FY 2009 and FY 2018. That follows national trends, which find that women make up the fastest-growing portion of the U.S. incarcerated population.
Now, a system created primarily to house men is scrambling to catch up. In the meantime, Jawharrah Bahar was one of the women who felt like she fell through the cracks.
Bahar says having a “normal pregnancy” while in custody was all but impossible.
She remembers eating a lot of oranges and baloney sandwiches while pregnant with her son. Not because she was craving them. But because she didn’t have much of a choice.
“I grew up eating fruit and vegetables and just grew up eating healthy,” Bahar says. “And so, when I was incarcerated and I had to be under those type of circumstances, it was just very difficult and hard for me to really just have a normal pregnancy under those circumstances. So, it was very stressful and hard.”
Bahar, who now supports other women who are currently or formerly incarcerated as director of outreach for the nonprofit Free Hearts, spent much of her pregnancy at the Davidson County jail, where she served three years and seven months.
Bahar says she was given prenatal vitamins and Tums for extra Vitamin C. But not having access to the nutrients her body needed took a toll. And during a time that was supposed to be filled with joy, she felt absolutely miserable.
“It was very depressing,” Bahar says. “I was very stressed because I couldn’t give my child the adequate care that my child deserved.”
New legislation will prevent other women from facing the same struggles. The bill, which passed unanimously through both the House and Senate, requires jails and prisons to provide medical care for women both before and after they give birth, along with healthy meals.
The legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year. But Nina Gurak of Healthy and Free Tennessee says this bill, which her group lobbied for, is an important first step for a state that considers itself “pro-infant health.”
“Anyone who’s been pregnant or anyone who’s been incarcerated knows that it would be quite hard to be both,” Gurak says. “To think about the stress of incarceration and the stress of not knowing if you’re going to be able to get the care that you need to give that child the best chance that they can have is, you know, horrifying.”
The Tennessee Department of Correction already has policies in place to provide special diets for pregnant women. Some are even eligible for six-month furloughs to give birth and bond with their newborns.
But pregnancy-related care is not uniformly administered in the correctional system, especially among the state’s dozens of county jails, which are independently run by local officials. And even when special provisions are available, women aren’t always informed.
Gurak says this bill is meant to standardize access, whether a woman is serving time at the Tennessee Prison for Women or the Clay County Jail. The next step, she says, is to ensure that women know their new rights. And that local officials honor them.
“Just because you pass a law doesn’t mean that things magically change,” Gurak says. “We’re also figuring out ways to stay committed to making sure that the change actually happens on the ground.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.