Recently, the Civitas ChildLaw Center’s Policy Institute at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law assisted IBJ in a number of research initiatives related to the IBJ mission. The Policy Institute seeks to improve the lives of children and families through systems reform and legislative advocacy. Policy Institute faculty promote the increased use of interdisciplinary collaboration, public-private partnerships, and child development principles in fashioning policies related to children and families. In the Fall of 2016, two Loyola University Chicago law students worked with Policy Institute faculty to research and analyze laws related to incarcerated pregnant women in Illinois and nationwide. Their work will inform IBJ’s advocacy efforts to support incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers before, during, and after birth.  

The following are links to these articles: 
50 State Survey of State Regulations for Incarcerated Pregnant Women
Illinois Law 
Medicaid Funding for Doulas 
States with Prison Doula Efforts
The Rebecca Project

Doulas for Pregnant Women Prisoners when Non-custodial Measures are not Available

Written by Heidi Ann Cerneka

The UN advocates for non-custodial measures for pregnant women caught in the justice system. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners known as the Bangkok Rules.[i]  Because the original UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were adopted in 1955, they did not contemplate the reality of women in custody.[ii] They did not consider how society has different expectations of women, and women often conform to those expectations.

The vast majority of adult women are mothers at some point in their lives and are responsible for the care and sustenance of their children.  Women also have different physical and psychological needs than men.  At Logan Correctional Center in Illinois, for instance, over 90 percent of women prisoners have been victims of violence at some point in their lives.[iii] 

Globally, the incarceration of women has increased exponentially in recent years, and within the UN, representatives began calling for a declaration or document that considered this reality. The Standard Minimum Rules adopted in 1955 were for “all” prisoners, but this really meant contemplated only men’s realities, and therefore men’s needs were the standard considered in the development of the rules.  “Gender neutral” most often means “masculine” in history.

I had the opportunity to participate in the preparatory process of the Bangkok Rules.  At the Intergovernmental Expert Group meeting in Bangkok, members of nongovernmental organizations from around the globe met with UN country delegates and specialists from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to craft a Resolution regarding the treatment of women in prison or serving non-custodial measures.  The United States Government actively participated with representation from the diplomatic corps and from someone from the field of criminal justice. 

Why does this matter in a conversation about doulas for incarcerated women?  Unfortunately, the Bangkok Rules did not have the foresight to consider involvement of doulas, but the Rules recommend that whenever possible, the priority for engaging women in the criminal justice system should be through non-custodial measures like probation, community service, bond, or pre-trial release. 

The Bangkok Rules remind us of the UN’s attention to the “impact of parental detention and imprisonment on children” and, the UN’s call to States to “identify and promote good practices in relation to the needs and physical, emotional, social and psychological development of babies and children affected by parental detention and imprisonment.”[iv] Women prisoners are considered a “vulnerable group” that has specific needs and requirements when incarcerated.[v]  They are often accused of or sentenced for nonviolent crimes, and many of them do not “pose a risk to society.”[vi]  Holding all of this in consideration, the UN Bangkok Rules recommend that when a woman is pregnant or a child’s sole or primary caretaker, a State should prioritize noncustodial measures whenever possible or appropriate, reserving incarceration only for those whose offense is serious or violent.[vii]

So, with regards to pregnant women, or women with small children, the State should consider all measures possible- therapeutic counseling and courses for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, probation, house arrest, community service, treatment if she is interested, and any other more creative options, before choosing the last resort of incarceration.

When a pregnant woman is incarcerated, the Bangkok Rules advocate for special considerations of health and diet, a healthy environment and regular exercise for the physical and mental health of the mother and the health of the baby.[viii]  Furthermore, the Bangkok Rules hold that women prisoners should not be discouraged from breastfeeding their children, unless some specific health reason indicates that she should not.[ix]  Finally, the UN Bangkok Rules recommend that States pay attention to the needs of incarcerated women who have recently given birth, but their babies are not with them in prison.[x]

For twenty years, I have advocated for and with women prisoners.  In Brazil, I watched judges grant house arrest for pregnant women, with an order to report back after the first six months of their babies’ lives, and the women did.  If we advocate for what is best for the children, for the women, for society, and for our future, our first choice should not be incarceration. Incarceration should only be what we turn to after considering all other options.  Twenty years of advocacy has taught me that, and a collection of specialists from all over the globe, including the United States agrees. 

While I wait for that to become reality though, and pregnant women are still incarcerated, and still need support, education, and coaching, there’s Illinois Birth Justice.  We advocate so that pregnant women who are incarcerated have access to doulas, and are accompanied in their pregnancy, labor, delivery and post-partum by qualified, supportive civil society representatives. Doulas increase the health of the pregnancy, of the mothers and their babies, and guarantee that even when incarcerated, women have a health advocate that they know is looking out for them.

[i] United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, 2010 (The Bangkok Rules), G.A. Res. 65/229, U.N. Doc. A/RES/65/229 (Mar. 16, 2011), available at

[ii] United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Aug. 30,1955), ECOSOC Res. 663 C/XXIV (Jul. 31, 1957), available at:  

[iii] Maggie Burke, Illinois Department of Corrections Women And Family Services Coordinator, Acting Warden Of Logan Correctional Center, Panel presentation: An In-depth Look at Pathways and Experiences of Justice-Involved Women from the Inside Out (Nov. 18, 2016). (Stating that 75% of the women prisoners at Logan had been victims of sexual abuse or assault; 90 percent were at some point victims of violence, and 80 percent had suffered physical abuse at the hands of a domestic partner).

[iv] The Bangkok Rules, supra note 1, at 2.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id. at Rule 58.

[viii] Id. at Rule 48 ¶ 1.

[ix] Id. at Rule 48 ¶ 2.

[x] Id. at Rule 48 ¶ 3.