Arizona prison officials have been inducing the labor of its pregnant prisoners against their will. But shortly after the Arizona Republic broke the news, state lawmakers introduced a bill banning them from continuing to do so.
HB 2639 revises an existing statute to prohibit prison officials from compelling, coercing, or even requesting that a pregnant person in custody agree to have their labor induced.
But it may not come soon enough for two women who are spending their last trimesters at Perryville, Arizona’s sole female prison.
Sierra Stevens, now eight months pregnant, told The Nation that the prison doctor asked if she wanted to have her labor induced. He warned her that she risked giving birth in prison if medical providers could not get to her quickly once she went into labor.
Stevens refused. She and her husband had already decided on a non-medicated birth, even going so far as to engage the services of a midwife before her arrest. She recalled that the doctor reiterated that induction would be the safest choice and that she should consider it.
But induction actually isn’t the safest choice. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have long cautioned that induction, especially before 39 weeks and if not medically necessary, carries greater health risks for newborns as well as for birthing people, who are at risk for infection, uterine rupture, and bleeding after delivery.
“My mind is already made up,” she said.
This is not her first time giving birth—she had five other children and knows what to expect while in labor. She and her husband are determined to allow their baby to come without a medical intervention—and not scheduled at the convenience of prison and hospital staff.
McCall Lunn is also expecting a new baby, a fact that she learned only after arrest.
“I was told I would be induced a week before my due date,” she told The Nation. “Other than that, I haven’t been told anything else about being induced.”
A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections told The Nation that, as a general rule, prison health care staff do not encourage women to have inductions.
Induction wasn’t a choice for Jocelyn Heffner, one of three women who came forward to blow the whistle on the forced inductions. She entered prison while pregnant in 2020. Medical staff at the high-risk pregnancy clinic told her that she would be induced. She tried to make her case, but was told that she had no choice. In July, when she was 37 weeks along, she was awoken at 3 am and driven to the hospital, where she was induced. She spent 48 hours with her newborn daughter at the hospital; two guards remained in the room to ensure that she did not escape.
When she returned to Perryville, she was quarantined for two weeks to ensure that she had not contracted Covid. “I was put in an empty, hot cell alone,” she said. “I kept getting headaches, and no medical staff was around to help. It was not until two days before I was ready to be placed back on my yard that someone even came to check my temperature, bleeding, and blood pressure—only because I kept complaining about it.” She also noted that she was only allowed to shower every other day. The Arizona Department of Correction stated that, while quarantine protocols were in place in July 2020, they no longer quarantine people following childbirth.
Heffner was released in October 2021. In 2022, when she was sent back to prison on a parole violation, she was six months pregnant with her second child. Again, doctors told her that she would be induced.
There was one small silver lining. In 2021, Arizona lawmakers passed the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which allowed her and her newborn to spend 72 hours together. And, unlike most other states, where incarcerated mothers spend those scant first hours with their newborns in the hospital under armed guard, Arizona’s law now allows them to spend those 72 hours at Circle Tree Ranch, a 60-acre wellness sanctuary in Tucson. They stayed in a small hotel-like room, where Heffner slept in a real bed, ate meals such as chicken and waffles that she would never see in prisons, and had constant access to snacks.
Still, Heffner was strip-searched upon arriving at the ranch and again when she left. One officer, she recalled, worked at the nearby men’s prison and had no experience with incarcerated women, particularly those who had just given birth. During the search, the officer demanded that Heffner squat and cough to ensure that she was not smuggling any contraband in her vagina. For the entire 72 hours, two officers remained in her room.
For over a decade, Arizona has long been embroiled in lawsuits and court orders about its abysmal prison health care. Days after the news about forced inductions, a federal judge ordered the state to make substantial changes to bring prison medical and mental health care up to constitutional standards.
News about the inductions has also pushed lawmakers to scrutinize overall prison practices. Governor Katie Hobbs issued an executive order creating an independent oversight commission to review the state’s prison system. The commission, whose members will include lawmakers, medical and mental health professionals, and at least two formerly incarcerated people, has the power to inspect prisons and prison records. It is also empowered to interview both staff and incarcerated people about issues including health care, security, conditions of facilities, access to nutrition and sanitary products, communication, grievances, and staffing. The commission will produce a public report by mid-November as well as annual reports.
Meanwhile, HB 2639 is languishing without a hearing. But bill sponsor Representative Athena Salman is not giving up on protecting incarcerated people against forced inductions. It could be partially or fully appended to another bill, she said, in a phone interview with The Nation. The budget process could provide another opportunity, through either a session law, or a temporary one-year law, or a permanent law.
“The ultimate goal is to get this codified into statute,” Salman said. The aim is not only to prohibit forced inductions, but also to prohibit cross-gender strip searches and guarantee prenatal care. The law currently does not guarantee prenatal care for incarcerated people. “And more broadly speaking, we’re codifying informed consent in medical decisions.”
She’s also hopeful that the governor’s newly appointed prison commissioner, Ryan Thornell, will be more proactive about improving health and safety in prisons. As director of Maine’s prison system, Thornell oversaw reforms to solitary confinement and medication.
The spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections explained:
“Director Thornell recognizes the importance of women’s healthcare during incarceration and it has been a focus of his during his first month on the job. Although the specific policy revision language is still being finalized, Director Thornell has directed changes to practices to ensure patient-centered care is the agency’s standard. This includes implementing individual birth plans for pregnant women incarcerated at ADCRR that will promote consistent communication across the healthcare team and within the facility case management team, including weekly engagement with the patient. Additionally, improved communication with healthcare staff at treating hospitals has been ensured. Finally, a pregnancy case manager will be assigned to each pregnant patient at ASPC-Perryville to serve as a single point of contact and advocate for the pregnant patient and will conduct weekly follow up visits with the patient. This is in addition to any healthcare services, appointments, and follow-up care that is provided to the patient.”
Already, pregnant people imprisoned at Perryville are noticing changes. Days after the ob-gyn told Lunn she had no choice about being induced, he backtracked, saying that induction was not medically needed and that she could decide by her next weekly visit.
And inside Perryville, the fact that lawmakers are concerned about their plight is giving women hope.
“That is exciting and probably the coolest thing I’ve ever had a part in for my whole 34 years,” Heffner wrote about the bill, ending her message with characters symbolizing a hooray emoji.
As for Stevens, she’s still not sure what will happen as her April due date approaches. “I often worry about my baby and my pregnancy,” she wrote. “After hearing what they do to us, I’m scared a lot but I’m ready to put up a fight if it comes down to it. I WILL NOT BE INDUCED!! I don’t care what loss of privileges they threaten me with. I may be in orange but I still have rights as a woman and a mother!”