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Home > Press Page

Thursday, December 9, 2010— Pregnant women awaiting trial at the Cook County Jail will now be housed together in one area specifically designed to meet their pre-natal needs, part of a unique program unveiled Thursday by Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart.

The program was developed after two years of planning and the tier is fully staffed not only by correctional officers, but also by medical and nursing staff, along with case managers, counselors, mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors. That combined effort is aimed at guiding the women through a healthy pregnancy, providing them with the tools they need to further enhance their parenting skills and the motivation to become successful members of their communities.

 “As we looked at the special needs of pregnant women in our custody, we started a dialogue about the steps we could take to ensure they deliver healthy babies and ways we can help them understand that the decisions they make are not only affecting themselves, but someone else, as well,” Dart said. “This program is really a step toward breaking the cycles we’re starting to see far too often with our female detainees.”

The number of mothers behind bars is growing at a staggering rate – a recent study showed they represent the nation’s fastest-growing prison population. More than 150,000 children have mothers who are now incarcerated. It also revealed the loss of a mother to incarceration leads to unique and significant long-term traumas to a child. The Cook County Jail has seen multiple sets of multi-generational women in custody at the same time.

The number of pregnant women in the jail fluctuates based on whether bond is posted or a case is finalized. Since July 2009, there have been 327 pregnant women in jail, 12 of whom gave birth at Stroger Hospital, then returned to jail to await trial. Of the approximately 800 women now in custody at the Cook County Jail, 14 are pregnant.

Until this program started, there were no specific programs at the jail to help those women through their pregnancies or ensure they remain an integral part of their child’s life. It was developed in close collaboration with staff at Cermak Hospital, which is a hospital on the jail grounds operated by the Cook County Bureau of Health Systems. Dr. Tina Richardson provides pre-natal care to all pregnant detainees, while other Cermak staff provide a comprehensive range of services – from nutritional education to childbirth and counseling sessions – aimed at improving the lives of the mother and child.

“This is a teachable moment for us,” said Dr. Avery Hart, Chief Medical Officer at Cermak. “By allowing these women to participate in this program, we have the opportunity of having some of these women turn their lives around.”

Previously, the only jail program for pregnant women came through a partnership with the non-profit Haymarket Center, where Cook County Commissioners provided funds for 24 beds at that off-site, rehabilitative location. But many women didn’t qualify for the program, meaning they were housed in the jail’s general population, with access to the same physical activity, meals and medical care as any other female detainees.

But the new program, under the direction of the Sheriff’s Department of Women’s Justice Services, provides a full day of activities – from courses on substance abuse, anger management and criminal thinking to classes teaching child development, successful parenting and coping skills, along with opportunities for the women to participate in group therapy and journaling. Additionally, meals have been adjusted to accommodate the needs of pregnant women. They receive three meals with higher caloric content and more choices than traditional jail meals, while also receiving at least two additional snacks a day.

Pregnant detainees can also participate in a four-week parenting course aimed at giving them a chance to have “contact visits” with their children in an area known as the “Bright Space Room.” Opened in 2008, it is filled with toys and couches and provides a more interactive visit between mother and child than a traditional jail visit between glass.

In another effort to improve the therapeutic environment for expectant mothers at Cook County Jail, Dart is working with the General Assembly to change state laws covering the use of handcuffs and other restraints on pregnant inmates. Dart’s proposal, set to be introduced in the legislature in the coming weeks, would restrict the use of any restraints on pregnant inmates when they are being transported for medical care.

“It’s our hope that these changes provide the kind of impetus for change these women so desperately need in their lives,” Dart said. “We want to help them break the cycle so we don’t see another generation coming through our doors.”

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