Maryland could become the second state in the nation to provide specific support for the health and well-being of incarcerated people who are pregnant and their newborns.
In the next General Assembly, a bill will recommend community-based alternatives to jail or prison for pregnant women with nonviolent offenses, for up to one year after the birth. Current Maryland law requires separating an incarcerated mother and infant after two to three days.
Del. Lesley Lopez, D-Montgomery County, is co-sponsoring the legislation, which she said would allow a child to be near his or her parent to bond in the first crucial year of life.
“I myself am going to deliver any day now, and so I’m looking ahead to those next few months of what it’s like to bond with your child for a lifetime of parenting,” she said. “And if we are a society that really puts a family as the center of what community means, then we need to emphasize that.”
She said the Prevention of Forced Infant Separation Act is modeled after Minnesota’s Healthy Start Act, which went into effect in August. That bill had bipartisan support, and Lopez said she thinks hers will, too, when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Anushka Vakil, who is working on the bill with the Maryland Justice Project on the bill, noted that infant bonding in the first year is biologically and socially important, and numerous studies show babies who lack this contact can have serious issues later in life.
“From the research, we have found,” she said, “we know that when infants are separated at this really young age, it increases baby stress levels, these babies are more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they become adults, and a lot of these effects are permanent.”
An estimated 58,000 pregnant people enter U.S. jails and prisons every year, according to research from the Prison Policy Initiative. In some state prison systems, it said, miscarriage, premature birth, and cesarean section rates are higher than those for the general population.