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Pregnant Women in Federal Custody—A Uniquely Vulnerable Population

Posted on February 25, 2021

Pregnant women in custody are a vulnerable group with specialized health care needs. Yet, there are gaps in the treatment and care policies used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Prisons that could potentially expose these women to health risks.

In today’s WatchBlog post, we look at our new report on issues related to pregnant women in custody.


Photo of the walk way in front of prison cells


How many pregnant women are in custody?

That answer depends on the federal agency and the type of federal action involved. For example, from 2016 through 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detained pregnant women more than 4,600 times as part of immigration enforcement activities. A majority (68%) of these detentions were for 1 week or less, while 10% were for more than 30 days.

With respect to criminal justice agencies, we found that there were at least 1,220 pregnant women in Marshals Service custody and 524 pregnant women in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody from 2017 to 2019.  The figure below provides additional information on the age, race, and length of time in custody for pregnant women in the Marshals Service’s and Bureau of Prisons’ custody during this time.


Bar chart showing number and characteristics of pregnant women in DOJ custody.


Federal agency policies on the treatment and care of pregnant women

In a May 2020 report, we found that ICE has policies and detention standards that address a variety of matters regarding the care of pregnant women, such as pregnancy testing requirements. However, we also found that some facilities did not address all of these pregnancy-related topics through their policies and standards, such as guidance on required and recommended vaccines for pregnant women and HIV care. At the time of our reporting, ICE told us they have plans to update its policies and detention standards and these updates will address many of the gaps we identified.

This month, we found that policies at the Marshals Service were not aligned with national guidance in 13 of 16 treatment and care categories, such as providing mental health services and special accommodations, like lower bunk assignments or special clothing. Meanwhile, Bureau of Prison policies were not aligned with national guidance in 8 of 16 categories, such as nutrition modifications for pregnant and postpartum women’s diets. We made recommendations for both agencies to more closely align their policies with national guidelines. Both agencies agreed with our recommendations.

To learn more about our work focusing on pregnant women in custody, check out our May 2020 report on ICE detention centers and our February report on the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons, or listen to our new podcast with GAO’s Gretta Goodwin on pregnant women in custody.

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