Solitary confinement poses many harms to people who are incarcerated especially pregnant women. They are especially susceptible to greater harms. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care defines solitary confinement as “the housing of an adult or juvenile with minimal to rare meaningful contact with other individuals.” Those in solitary confinement often experience sensory deprivation and are offered few or no educational, vocational, or rehabilitative programs. The harms posed by this confinement are well-documented and include increased anxiety, loss of appetite, hallucinations, depression, self-mutilation and increased risk of suicide. These harms, among others, were also identified in a recent landmark federal appellate court decision. Additionally, some people are at heightened risk of experiencing the negative impacts of this type of confinement, e.g., people with mental illness, young people under the age of 18, pregnant women and women who have recently given birth.
In 2015, the Correctional Association of New York released a report analyzing the state of reproductive health care in New York’s prisons. The report detailed the risks that pregnant women in solitary confinement encounter, and concluded that solitary is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it impedes access to critical OB care and prevents women from getting the regular exercise and movement that are vital for a healthy pregnancy. In addition, many pregnant women experience stress and depression regardless of whether they have a mental illness, and solitary can greatly exacerbate those feelings. High levels of stress are hazardous for pregnant women, lowering their ability to fight infection and increasing the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage and low birth weight in babies.
Dr. Vivette Glover, the author of The Effects of Prenatal Stress on Child Behavioral and Cognitive Outcomes Start at the Beginning summarized the current ideas of scientists and health professionals surrounding this area of research. In her paper, she discusses how many studies have now shown that if a mother is stressed, anxious or depressed while pregnant, her child is at increased risk for having a range of problems, including emotional problems, ADHD, conduct disorder and impaired cognitive development, just to name a few. Believe or not, even the child’s fingerprint patterns have been found to be changed, an alteration which could well be linked with changes in brain development. Both altered brain structure and function have been shown to be associated with prenatal stress. She also notes that several studies have shown that all of these outcomes are independent of possible confounding factors (birth weight, gestational age, maternal education, smoking, alcohol consumption, and most importantly, postnatal anxiety and depression). In other words, these outcomes are directly associated with one cause and not a result of many different factors, such as those mentioned before. Even though mother’s postnatal emotional state and the quality of early postnatal care are clearly important for many of these outcomes, the evidence suggests that there are substantial prenatal effects also.
So what does this all mean? I’ll tell you. Due to the results of several studies, maternal stress during pregnancy does increase the risks of a child having a range of altered neurodevelopmental outcomes. Now this is where it get’s complex. Studies also found that stress can be of different types and that not all children are affected, and those that are, are affected in different ways. For this reason, Dr. Glover suggests to view all this in terms of our evolutionary history. She explains, ” In a stressful environment it may have been adaptive for our ancestors to have children who were more vigilant (anxious) or with readily distracted attention (ADHD), and possibly with more rapid motor development.” Our modern world literally punishes individuals who are different and several of these changes can be more hurtful than helpful, and cause problems for the child and their family.
So what can we do? Well, if we want the best outcomes for our children, who will one day grow to be the leaders we either all love to love or love to hate, we need to provide the best possible emotional care for pregnant women. It is imperative that more be invested into public health education about this issue, and pregnant women encouraged both to look after themselves emotionally, and to seek help if needed. That’s where you, and me and the rest of our communities come in. To spread knowledge in order for us to come together and fix it. This is the reason why I love #cut50, a campaign founded by Van Jones to reform the criminal justice system through humanization, legislation and innovation. Their aim is to reduce the prison population while making our communities safer. Their campaigns are led by people who have been directly impacted by the justice system and want to create change, just like me. I invite you to visit their website, share it with your friends and sign the petition in your support of our efforts. We have the potential to prevent a range of neurodevelopmental problems arising in a clinically-significant proportion of children, so let’s take action tribe. Join us today!
Until next time tribe!