Jamaica: the agony of serving time in prison while pregnant

In Jamaica, women incarcerated while pregnant face the painful reality of being separated from their newborn up to six months after giving birth — a reality which often leads to anxiety and depression for the rest of their stay in prison.

One formerly incarcerated woman, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer shared her experience of giving birth while serving time at the Fort Augusta correctional facility in St Catherine and, in the aftermath of living with this reality behind bars.

Imprisoned at 24 years old, the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that just months before her incarceration she found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

*“This was my first pregnancy and to know that I would be missing the attention and affection that pregnant women crave, the pampering, being around family and friends was extremely difficult. Imagine being eight months pregnant and have to be sleeping on a bunk bed. Every time I move I fear rolling off the bed because it wasn’t very wide and I wasn’t exactly small bodied. The mattress had to be doubled and tied together with sheet because it wasn’t comfortable. Then, on top of that, I was stressed thinking about my trial, and as you know, stress isn’t good for anyone, much less pregnant women who already have high blood pressure. So overall it wasn’t good at all,” *said the woman.

“When they took him I cried for weeks and months. My pressure went through the roof. I thought I was going to die. I lost so much weight in such a short space of time it was ridiculous. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe or think properly,” she added. “It was as if I was suspended in space, looking down on myself. Then I realised that I had to be strong for him, for when I went back home. I wondered if he would forget me.”

The woman described the difficulty of being in her cell and going on lockdown while nursing her newborn at night.

  • “At Fort Augusta, even though there were windows, they were like cells with wooden closures. There were no doors, just the huge grill bars used to ‘secure’ us in the doors at night. You never want to have a sleeping baby and know it’s soon time for ‘lockdown’, where the grill has to be slammed because that will inevitably wake the baby. Just imagine having him cranky all day, you finally get him to sleep and then bam, grill lock and him wake up screaming,”* she said.

Looking at the state of women incarcerated in Jamaica’s correctional facilities, executive director of human rights NGO Stand Up for Jamaica, Carla Gulotta, highlighted the fact that separation anxiety and depression are primary issues hampering the rehabilitation of inmates, women in particular who are mothers.

“For female inmates, being incarcerated is a major reason of anxiety, pain, and stress. The truth is that most of the children end up maybe with a grandmother, or auntie, or sometimes they end in the street, or they end up with a neighbour. Very often it is not a steady situation, so they keep worrying about what is happening with their children. Because of this the female inmates get anxious and easily discouraged,” said Gullotta.

This level of anxiety, the human rights activist argued, inhibits the woman inmates’ ability to focus on the rehabilitative process which includes various educational and entrepreneurial activities inside the correctional facility.

“That has an impact on their rehabilitation. When it comes to their children they are heavily affected emotionally, they cannot focus on the school or other activities that we have for them at the facility,” she said,“ adding that about two women give birth while incarcerated in Jamaica each year.

Administrator and assistant project coordinator with Stand Up for Jamaica, Katrian Clarke, explained that newborns taken from their mothers are given over to a family member or placed in State care.

“*The Department of Correctional Services makes these arrangements before the six months are up. But if a family member is not willing [to assist], the child is put into State care,” she added. “It is horrible for the mother when the child is leaving. But on the other hand you cannot keep the child in a prison. They get attached to their baby and get separation anxiety when the six months are up and they have to let them go.”*

Those six months for the formerly incarcerated mother who spoke with the Sunday Observer were crucial moments of bonding.

“I used the six months to study him. I thought by knowing all his features and every spot on his body that it would help me cope after he left. But that wasn’t the case at all. Right before the six months ended, I had a gaping hole in my heart. Babies do a lot up to six months, so I go to see his first smile, first tooth and so forth. But when I realised I would miss his first step, his first word his first birthday that devastated me,” said the woman.

Presently, inmates are only allowed to see their children two times per year and, are allowed one five-minute phone call per week. However, Gulotta argued that female inmates should be allowed to see their children more frequently.

“One of the things that I really would love to see happening is that they allow them to see their children more often. Family day is only two times per year and usually the time they can spend together is extremely short. That is 15 minutes to be exact.”

Gulotta explained that on regular visiting days, the inmate mothers are not allowed to touch or even hug their children, with them sitting across a table from each other.

“This also does damage to the child who has to travel from far to come to Kingston to reach the prison, then they have to wait outside and then when they go in, they do not like the prison, they feel afraid; they see the wires, the warders and so when they come to see their mothers they are sort of shy, nervous, etc, because can you imagine they see their mommy on the other side of the table and you can’t even get a hug,” said Gulotta.

“To rebuild confidence it takes time, and half an hour is not enough because by the time the child makes the first little smile, it is time for them to go. I really hope this new commissioner will intervene in this matter with the children,” she added. “This does a lot of damage because it is not helping the mother and child to keep a relationship so when they finally go back home they are perfect strangers to their children, especially if they are very young. The child also grows up feeling ashamed having a mother in prison.”

The young mother, now 30, who has since been reunited with her son, said that much improvement is needed in Jamaica’s correctional facilities for women offenders who are incarcerated while pregnant, highlighting the security of the newborn and the hostility of correctional officers as areas in need of improvement.

“If you are imprisoned for drugs, and you have to be sharing a cell with someone accused or convicted of murdering a child. That isn’t right with you at all. The correctional officers of course need to be specially trained as some of them are very hostile. And lastly, they can seek to extend the time they allow the child to remain with the mother, especially if the mother doesn’t have a long sentence,” said the woman.