Approximately 0.7% of the women imprisoned in 22 states were pregnant at the end of 2016, along with 0.3% of those in federal prisons, according to a systematic study believed to be the first of its kind.

Prevalence of pregnant women in state prisons on Dec. 31, 2016

That works out to 0.6% of the 56,262 women housed in the 23 prison systems on Dec. 31, 2016, Carolyn Sufrin, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and her associates wrote in the American Journal of Public Health.

Nearly 1,400 pregnant women were admitted to the 26 federal prisons that house women and 22 state prison systems over a 1-year period in 2016-2017. The prisons involved in the study represent 57% of all women incarcerated in the United States, they noted.

Among the pregnancies completed while women were in prison, there were 753 live births: 685 at state facilities and 68 at federal sites. About 6% of those births were preterm, compared with almost 10% nationally in 2016, and 32% were cesarean deliveries, Dr. Sufrin and her associates reported.

All but six births occurred in a hospital; three “were attributable to precipitous labor with prison nurses or paramedics in attendance, and details were not available for the others,” they wrote. Of the 8% of non–live birth pregnancies, 6% were miscarriages, 1% were abortions, and the remainder were stillbirths or ectopic pregnancies. There were three newborn deaths and no maternal deaths.

“That prison pregnancy data have previously not been systematically collected or reported signals a glaring disregard for the health and well-being of incarcerated pregnant women. The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects data on deaths during custody but not births during custody. Despite this marginalization, it is important to recognize that incarcerated women are still members of broader society, that most of them will be released, and that some will give birth while in custody; therefore, their pregnancies must be counted,” the investigators wrote.

The study was supported by the Society of Family Planning Research Fund and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development. The investigators had no conflicts of interest to report.

SOURCE: Sufrin C et al. Am J Public Health. 2019 Mar 21:e1-7. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2019.305006.