Charlotte Cook asked a nurse to take this photo of her and her son just after his birth. Days later, she said, she was back at the prison in a locked room by herself. (Charlotte Cook and Courtesy of Charlotte Cook)
Columnist

Angela Grimm was 32 weeks pregnant when she arrived at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

That first day, as she tells it, she sat on a bench in a holding cell from morning until evening, waiting to be processed.

She was then taken to a room in the medical unit, where she would stay for the rest of her pregnancy, isolated from the general population.

“Basically, you were on lockdown,” she recalled. “They opened the doors long enough for you to get your medicine, and you had about an hour to use the phone if it worked for you and to take a shower. Then you had to be back in your room.”

She said she couldn’t go to the general dining area to share her meals with other women. She couldn’t participate in classes that were offered at the facility. She couldn’t attend church.

“I’d sit there and stare at the wall all day long,” she said. “I didn’t even have a Bible at that time.”

Every once in a while, a law comes along that is based on something so unbelievable that before we can applaud the legislation, we have to wrap our minds around the impetus for it.

Take the bill that was signed into law Tuesday by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Advocates say it is the first in the nation to protect pregnant women from forced solitary confinement.

If that gives you pause — if that makes you say, “Wait, do we really do that to pregnant women?” — you are not alone.

Kimberly Haven, the criminal justice advocate who wrote the bill, said several elected officials asked her the same thing.

“ ‘Are you kidding?’ ” she recalled some saying.

“Our prisons, not just in Maryland but universally, across the board, are the most closed systems we have, and people have no idea what goes on behind those walls,” said Haven, who works for Reproductive Justice Inside and was also behind a recent push for incarcerated women to have access to tampons and other feminine hygiene products. “Women have become correctional afterthoughts.”

Correctional and detention facilities do not use the words “solitary confinement,” Haven said, but their practices have the same results. She said they have been known to place women who have reached a certain point in their pregnancy in medical isolation, away from the general population, regardless of whether those women want to go.

Those same inmates, she said, are also returned to isolation after delivering and handing off their babies, leaving them without much support when they need it most.

“It is barbaric. It is inhumane. It is archaic,” said Haven who became an advocate after serving time herself. “And this bill changes that.”

The law, which was sponsored by Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) and state Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), takes effect in October. It requires correctional and detention facilities to have a written policy that prohibits placing inmates, during and after pregnancy, involuntarily in restrictive housing, including medical isolation. It allows for exceptions but requires documentation and regular monitoring of the inmates.

Haven said that after she drafted the legislation, she heard from several women who had gone through that experience and applauded the changes. I asked her to connect me with a few of them so that I could hear for myself what they had experienced, and that’s how I ended up on the phone with Charlotte Cook one afternoon this week.

“I don’t wish what I went through on anybody,” she told me. “It’s not the baby’s fault. That’s the way I look at it.”

She was six weeks pregnant but didn’t know it when she landed in prison. For months, she said, she complained that she didn’t feel well, but it wasn’t until five months later that she was given a blood test that confirmed she was pregnant.

She said she was considered high-risk because she had gone all that time without prenatal care and had been “doing all this stuff a pregnant woman shouldn’t have been doing”: taking psychiatric medication, sleeping on the top bunk, lugging heavy pots and pans for her job in the kitchen.

In the medical unit, she had a pregnant roommate and was thankful for that, but she called the experience “traumatic in its own way.”

The hardest part for her, she said, was returning to that area after she had her son. He was born full term but weighed only 4½ pounds. She got to spend three days with him in the hospital, most of that time handcuffed to her bed, before she returned to the prison. There, she said, she found her roommate was gone, and she was by herself in a locked room.

“It’s pretty traumatic to have a baby and to come home without him and have to sit in lockdown,” she said. “That’s really inhumane.”

It’s been five years since that day, but she cried over the phone as we spoke.

Grimm, who was eventually cleared of the charges against her, said she would have preferred to spend her time in the general population.

After she delivered her daughter, she fell into a deep depression and stopped eating, she said.

“Nobody knew I was not eating,” she said. “There was nobody around. They found out when my head banged on the floor when I walked out of the room to get a shower. They forced me to eat that day.”

Three months later, she said, she was back in the general population when she found out her daughter was ill and on a ventilator.

“When that happened, I had support,” she said. “I had people around me to get through that.”

If you’re wondering what these women did to end up in prison, you are missing the point. It doesn’t matter, because the issue is bigger than these individuals. We have a system that is based on a belief in rehabilitation, that aims to make people better when they leave prison than when they entered it, because most eventually will be released from behind those locked doors. We also have a moral obligation to children who did nothing to warrant their beginnings behind bars.

Cook and Grimm are now free and have 5-years-olds they adore.

Both also know that they are not alone in their experiences.

Yes, we should applaud lawmakers in Maryland for doing something about this issue.

But we should also be looking at correctional and detention centers elsewhere and asking how they treat pregnant women. What else is happening that we don’t know about?