A woman gave birth alone in a jail cell in Tennessee on Tuesday after seeking medical attention for more than an hour, the authorities said, raising questions about the care provided to the woman and her baby.
The episode highlights issues about the incarceration of women and drew criticism from prison reform advocates who have raised concerns about pregnant women in prisons or jails being ignored and put at risk.
The woman, whose name has not been made public, was incarcerated at the Montgomery County Jail in Clarksville, Tenn., about 50 miles northwest of Nashville, when she notified a deputy at 11:31 a.m. about a “medical concern,” according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
A nurse arrived a few minutes later, the sheriff’s office said.
The nurse assessed the woman and then left to consult with other medical staff members. Another nurse arrived at 11:54 a.m. to “conduct a follow-up assessment,” according to the sheriff’s office. The medical staff members left to continue to “assess the situation and order additional medical tests,” the sheriff’s office said.
However, at 12:41 p.m., a deputy went to the cell and “discovered that the inmate had given birth while in her cell,” the sheriff’s office said. The deputy helped the woman while medical staff members were alerted.
The woman and her baby were taken to a hospital, where they remained in stable condition and under hospital care as of Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said.
It was unclear why the woman was not taken to a hospital before she gave birth, and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Saturday.
It was also unclear whether medical or jail staff would face any kind of discipline. The sheriff’s office said it conducted a review of what happened but offered no additional details.
The episode underscored that there is effectively no national standard of care for women who are incarcerated and pregnant, though most correctional facilities have policies.
State Senator Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat, described what happened as “troubling.”
“It is a concern that women are treated with dignity, and their child,” Ms. Akbari said in an interview on Saturday night. “If they are incarcerated, that they are in a safe environment, and that they have the same rights and protections that they would for themselves and their child regardless of their incarceration status.”
Penal Reform International, a nongovernmental organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice systems, said that women who give birth while incarcerated usually do so in a hospital.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2019 found that from 2016 to 2017, a majority of prison pregnancies ended in live births or miscarriages.
“The far-reaching consequences of the health of incarcerated people for the public’s health and that of broader society are well documented,” the authors of the study wrote. “These consequences are compounded for incarcerated pregnant women given that incarceration affects not only their health but also that of subsequent generations.”
In 2021, Minnesota became the first state to end the practice of separating incarcerated mothers from their newborns.
The law, known as the Healthy Start Act, states that pregnant and postpartum inmates can be placed into alternative housing with their newborns for up to one year after birth. Previously, newborns were taken from their incarcerated mothers within 72 hours of birth.
Across the country, most incarcerated mothers are allowed one day with their newborns in the hospital, according to the American Medical Association. The infants are placed with relatives or in foster care while the mothers are returned to prison or jail.
Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who has researched pregnancies in prisons, wrote in 2018 that “early identification of pregnancy is important to ensure that women receive appropriate prenatal care or, if abortion care is desired, timely referral.”
Dr. Sufrin said that while “being pregnant while incarcerated presents unique physical and psychological challenges,” pregnancy should not be viewed by the criminal justice system “as a disease, disorder or malady, and the institution should provide a healthy environment where a woman can safely care for her developing fetus.”
Some women have filed lawsuits after giving birth in jail.
NBC Washington reported that a Maryland woman claimed her cries for help were ignored as she gave birth on the floor of a jail cell in Washington County. A woman in Kentucky who gave birth alone in the Franklin County Regional Jail in 2017 filed a lawsuit against the county and received a $200,000 settlement, The Lexington Herald-Leader reported.