On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to identify ways to better support pregnant women and girls in the county’s jails and juvenile lockups.
The motion, authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn, directs the Department of Health Services and the sheriff’s department, in coordination with other relevant county departments to report back to the board in 90 days with data on the number of pregnant women and girls in sheriff’s department or probation custody, as well as information about their crimes and sentences, and the number of women and girls who gave birth while in custody, and who took custody of the infants.
“Pregnant and incarcerated women and girls often have limited access to the care they and their babies need both pre- and postpartum,” the motion states. “These women and girls often live in poor conditions leading up to and during their births, and are forced to relinquish their babies while still nursing and bonding with their newborn.”
During the board meeting, Supervisor Solis told the story of a pregnant 16-year-old who was arrested on a warrant and taken to Central Juvenile Hall. “Within days [of her arrest] she delivered her baby at LAC + USC Medical Center,” Solis said. But the baby was kept at the hospital while the teen mother was sent back to juvenile hall to await her court date. “Here in LA County, we can do better,” Solis said. “We should do better for both the mothers and their babies.”
In their motion, Solis and Hahn point to a program in New York, at Bedford Hills
Correctional Facility for Women, which helps incarcerated moms to form the crucial infant-mother bonds by allowing them to live with their infants behind bars, for up to a year and a half.
The motion comes in the wake of a February 2 report from LA County’s Office of Inspector General detailing the services and six programs available for pregnant inmates at Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, where approximately 35 pregnant women were housed as of January.
The county’s offerings for pregnant and post-partum women include a program that allows mothers to send their frozen breast milk to their babies, a weekly visitation program for mothers and their young children, and an upcoming program that will help incarcerated mothers with physical and mental health services, parenting, and negotiating moms’ reunification with their children once they are released from jail.
The board requested information on how women are notified of the programs the county already offers for new mothers, as well as information on eligibility and how many women and girls participated in the programs last year, with options for increasing participation and expanding eligibility.
“These women and girls need to know that they do not have to go through this alone, and the County has services to support them both physically and emotionally during this time of their lives and beyond,” Supervisor Solis said.
The motion also calls for information about the conditions within the county’s lockups for pregnant and post-partum women and girls, including the availability of clean drinking water, after the OIG relayed complaints of poorly sanitized and dirty-tasting water.
The OIG’s found “on multiple occasions” infestations of drain fly and larvae in faucets and drains of the women’s jail, caused by inmates putting food down the drains.
While the sheriff’s department installed a water filtration system in 2016, and has since tested the water on a biweekly basis, neither the water filters, nor the department’s pest control and sanitation efforts actually address the issue of flies and larvae in the drains, according to the report.
“Although the water is tested regularly and is deemed safe to drink, the presence of flies and larvae in the drains from which the drinking water is dispensed is concerning,” the report says. “The Office of Inspector General and Department personnel have received confirmation that some prisoners, including pregnant prisoners, are disinclined to drink the water because of its perceived danger and/or poor taste.”
Inmates are allowed to purchase bottled water from commissary and vending machines, but according to the report, “indigent pregnant prisoners who cannot afford to purchase water are still limited to tap water from the sink.”
The motion also seeks information on policies and practices regarding prenatal, dental, and mental health care, as well as appropriate diets, and options for increasing out-of-cell time for women and girls in sheriff’s department or probation custody.
“Being pregnant while in jail or juvenile hall is tough, but it is a stark reality that many women and girls face,” Solis said. “The County has a responsibility to provide those under our care with the medical attention they and their unborn child require.”
The supervisors also asked for information on “all available options for diversion” for those pregnant in the county’s custody, and community-based mental health alternatives to incarceration for eligible pregnant women and girls, as well as substance use treatment for those who have substance use disorders.
Betty Norwind, Executive Director of the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, called the motion “a no-brainer” calling the effort a “good first step” toward examining the “largest population of incarcerated women” in the nation. “I think that we all know that good prenatal care leads to improved life outcomes, bonding at birth is a crucial time in child development, and that all of the literature shows that the increased mother-child relationship is a critical factor in reducing recidivism,” Norwind said.
Image by Nevit Dilmen.