HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania prisons are the best in the nation when it comes to treatment of pregnant inmates, according to a report released Thursday.
The National Women's Law Center and Rebecca Project for Human Rights analyzed policies related to prenatal care, shackling of women during childbirth and alternatives to incarceration that allow mothers to be with their children.
In Pennsylvania state prisons, pregnant inmates receive regular medical exams, lab testing, prenatal vitamins, nutrition counseling, childcare education and postpartum care, said Susan McNaughton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
The state's female inmate population has grown from 1,947 in 2005 to more than 2,400 this year. On average, the state admits about 38 pregnant inmates each year.
Between 2005 and 2009, 157 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inmates gave birth. Another 36 pregnant inmates were released before their delivery dates.
Pregnant inmates are housed at the State Correctional Institution Muncy in Lycoming County. They are housed in the general population until 10 days before their due dates, when they are moved to the infirmary.
Pregnant inmates are not shackled during labor and delivery, Ms. McNaughton said.
That has long been the policy in the state prison system, but a new state law now also prevents county jails from shackling during childbirth.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware, introduced the legislation after reading about a shackled Philadelphia County inmate who was injured during childbirth.
"I knew we had to make a change, and we did. It was a rare victory for human rights in Pennsylvania, which is not always on the forefront of socially progressive legislation," Mr. Leach said.
Even lawmakers who normally take a hard line on corrections supported the bill, he said. "They realized there is an innocent child just being born who is being placed at risk," he said.
Reports of deputies shackling Allegheny County Jail inmates during childbirth at Magee-Womens Hospital drew public outcry in 2006.
The new law gives Allegheny County inmates even more confidence that they won't be shackled, said Alison Colbert, assistant professor of nursing at Duquesne University who provides pre-natal classes at the jail.
"It's something they all lived in fear of. The prospect of being shackled during labor was quite terrifying," Ms. Colbert said. "The Allegheny County Jail has maintained its commitment not to shackle, and it's wonderful, but before the legislation you never knew what might happen with a change in administration."
The report gave Pennsylvania an overall grade of A-, the highest of any state.
New Mexico, New York and Texas received overall grades of B+. The report's lowest grades went to Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Virginia and Wyoming, which each received an F+.
According to the report, Pennsylvania could improve by reporting outcomes of all pregnancies, by providing training to officers transporting pregnant inmates and by providing prison nurseries.
Ms. Colbert identified one other area for improvement: "When an inmate is on the inside, we know they're getting good prenatal care. What we can do better is build a bridge to the outside."
Ms. McNaughton said the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections strives to provide proper care for all inmates, and that pregnant women and mothers have unique needs.
She said the department encourages caregivers to bring children to visit. Parents -- other than sex offenders -- are allowed to hold their children during the visit, she said.
The purpose of Thursday's report was to encourage accountability and consistency in the treatment of incarcerated mothers.
Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 1-717-787-2141.