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Life Inside

I Had a High-Risk Pregnancy in Jail — Then I Gave Birth in Chains

When Rebecca Figueroa was arrested two months into her pregnancy, she didn’t worry because she wasn’t guilty. But seven months later, she was still in jail and totally unprepared for a high-risk pregnancy, childbirth in restraints and the constant fear of losing her daughter.

An illustration shows a dark brown-skinned baby's hand gripping the index finger of a light brown adult hand against a black background. Shreds of paper showing a woman's varying expressions of worry overlap on top of the image of the two hands.

I am blessed to have overcome addiction, but for many years it ruled my life and landed me in painful situations. I began drinking and experimenting with drugs to mask my pain from being molested as a young child. By age 20, I was involved in dealing drugs and running in the streets. From there, I became addicted to crack cocaine. I let my family raise my kids while I was in and out of addiction.

In 2006, I was two months pregnant when I got arrested with two of my girlfriends. My friends got into a fight with another girl. At the time, myself, my girlfriends and the other girl were all struggling with addiction.

Police took us to Riverhead Correctional Facility, a jail on Long Island, New York. At first, I didn’t worry about being pregnant with my third child in jail because I knew I wasn’t guilty of a crime. I was in the car at the time of the fight, and I would never get involved in a fight while I was pregnant.

The state had other ideas about my guilt.

About six months before I was arrested for the fight, I had completed a one-year sentence for felony acting-in-concert. (Police thought I was refusing to give them information about a friend involved in a robbery, but I really didn’t have it.) I faced the same judge for the fight, and because the other girl claimed my friends and I also stole from her, I was also facing robbery and acting-in-concert charges.

I wasn’t able to afford my own lawyer, so I had to take what Suffolk County gave me. At first, I was assigned a public defender. But because I had co-defendants, I was switched to an “18b lawyer,” a private lawyer who represents indigent people. A lot of people plead guilty in cases like mine in exchange for a lesser charge, but my lawyer and I refused. My case went to trial. I ended up sitting in jail, pregnant, waiting for my co-defendants to get their own deals and sentences. Their lawyers wanted them to get sentenced before they signed statements saying that I had nothing to do with what happened.

I was very young when I gave birth to my first two children — 15 and 18 years old. This pregnancy at age 23 was high-risk because of a mix of health concerns. I had high blood pressure, I had gained a lot of weight, and I was in danger of developing gestational diabetes. And both times I had given birth, my water didn’t break. I needed medical assistance in order to dilate enough to deliver my babies.

To make matters worse, it was impossible for me to maintain proper nutrition in jail. The regular diet at Riverhead consisted mainly of carbs. Pasta, rice and bread were mainstays, but there were very few fruits and vegetables. Lots of people supplemented the jail diet with food from commissary, like cans of tuna, but I didn’t have money for commissary.

Myself, my doctor and my lawyer tried everything to get me better food — writing prescription diets and sending letters to the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, social workers in the jail, and anyone else we could. But we were unsuccessful.

I was even more frustrated because I knew that it was possible to get better food without a special diet. During my first bid, I worked in the jail, cleaning the medical unit and visiting rooms. The jail couldn’t pay us like they do in state facilities, so our payment was cooked meals. The people who worked in the kitchen would cook us real chicken, burgers, anything we wanted, and send it to us. Now I was having a high-risk pregnancy but had to rely on the kindness of a female corrections officer who would bring me salads and other nutritious foods from time to time.

My obstetrician on the outside was able to monitor my health at weekly appointments, but every trip to my doctor meant a disturbing transport process.

In Suffolk County, corrections officers are not responsible for taking patients to medical appointments; sheriff’s deputies do that. So I wasn’t transported by officers I knew and interacted with every day. The deputies were both indifferent and harsh. If you called them “officer” instead of “deputy,” they’d get angry because they didn’t think corrections officers deserved the same respect as they did.

Seven months after I was arrested, I started experiencing contractions. It was mid-February and sometime after midnight. I began screaming, and a woman further down the block called for an officer. For what felt like hours, I waited in a transfer cell for an ambulance and sheriff’s deputies to come. Then I was shackled and handcuffed during the ride.

After I arrived at Peconic Bay Hospital, the nurses and an ER doctor who evaluated me found that I was having “false” Braxton Hicks contractions. My baby wouldn’t be born that night, but I didn’t want to go back to jail. I was worried that I would have complications and hemorrhage while I was waiting for an ambulance, but they still took me back to Riverside.

A week later, on Feb. 19, 2006, I went into labor for real. Again at night, but not as late, I had to wait alone in a transfer cell for an ambulance and deputies to arrive. I was in so much pain, I was screaming and crying. By the time I got to the hospital, I was bleeding.

I had given birth before, but I’d never experienced anything like this. No one told me what would happen, or how to prepare to have a baby when you’re incarcerated.

Because the female corrections officer who brought me food had called my grandma and told her to meet me at the hospital, my grandma was in the waiting room. I just wanted somebody there that I loved, but she wasn’t allowed in my room while I was giving birth. Later, my grandma told me she could hear me screaming from the waiting room.

Even worse, the deputies handcuffed one of my wrists to the bed, and then shackled one of my feet. I was crying and cursing, “Uncuff me! Where am I going?” Finally, when the doctor told them to remove the restraints, they let the handcuff go, but they kept the leg shackle.

The deputies also wanted to stand guard outside my room with the door open. When the nurse asked them about it, they said, “We gotta watch her.” I remember thinking, What does that mean? Eventually, the nurses did get them to close the door.

I was still upset about the leg shackle, but it wasn’t long before the nurse told me, “Rebecca, just concentrate, because your daughter is coming.”

After I pushed Kayla out, a nurse took her away before I could lay her on my chest. I started screaming and crying again, and even tried to get off the bed, but I was still bleeding and shackled. Another nurse ran over, helped me back in bed, and told me that they were just evaluating the baby. To this day, I don’t know all of the tests they did, if they were drug testing her.

I thought about how, if I wasn’t an incarcerated person, they would have given my daughter to me immediately and done the tests in the same room. That’s what happened the other times I gave birth. And it wasn’t like I had any Child Protective Services (CPS) cases against me. I wasn’t even convicted of a crime at the time! But they took Kayla away. I felt like the state had been punishing me for fighting my case, for being an incarcerated mother. Now my baby was being punished, too.

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When they finally brought Kayla back to me, I asked if they would remove the shackle so I could go to the bathroom and then breastfeed her. They said no. I was so confused. There were two guards outside the door, and I was in the last room at the end of the maternity ward. I wasn’t going to jump out a window! Plus, there was no reason for me to run; I wasn’t guilty.

Three days later I went back to jail with Kayla. My new home was a room in the back of the medical unit that could house two mothers and two children. There were cribs, but they were made of metal. I never let my daughter sleep in there; they looked like tiny cells.

There was a phone and television in the room, because moving around the jail with a baby is difficult. We were able to go outside and have recreation time, but I had to request it. And in order for Kayla and me to go anywhere in the jail or even to court dates, all movement of inmates had to be stopped. It’s a precaution, because you can’t have all those people walking around when you’re pushing a baby in a stroller. I had to stay in this box until Kayla was 3 months old.

The whole time, I was concerned about losing Kayla. I didn’t have a CPS case, and I wasn’t charged with a violent felony. But in jail, you can only keep your child until they turn 1. My family began planning for that day in case I was still in jail fighting my case. My brother took leave from the Army and was ready to take my daughter in. My oldest daughter was already with my uncle and my other daughter with her father.

When my baby was nearly 4 months old, the DA dropped the charges against me. The judge looked at me and said, “We apologize.” As if any apology could make up for my time in the system — and the fact that I delivered my baby while shackled to a bed, with deputies watching.

I could have been at home when my grandfather passed away and when my mother moved out of state for her health. I’d gained my new light in Kayla, but lost two family members.

But even though I wasn’t guilty, I had to be charged with something because I’d already spent nearly a year in jail. I think they were scared I would come back and sue them. So they sentenced me to petty larceny — a misdemeanor with a sentence of up to a year in prison.

My lawyer wanted to fight, but that could have meant six more months in jail. I just wanted to take my baby out of there. My mother and grandfather were gone, and I didn’t have a home to go to, but I still couldn’t get out of jail fast enough. My lawyer told me, “Becky, we can sue and get so much more,” but I settled for time served.

I left Riverhead Correctional Facility with an apartment through the shelter system, food stamps, and a year’s worth of supplies for my baby. This eased my transition home, but it certainly didn’t make up for all the things I went through.

Rebecca Figueroa, age 38, is an outgoing and loving mother of seven children. She is in the process of finishing her associate’s degree at Suffolk County Community College in the Addiction Studies program. She plans to become a substance abuse counselor for incarcerated women and women recovering from addiction. Her goal is to work with those who do not have a voice and those left in the darkness.

A spokesperson for Riverhead Correctional Facility stated that they had no record of Rebecca attempting to secure a better diet while at the facility, and that pregnant prisoners are no longer shackled or handcuffed during transport or during labor.

A spokesperson for the Peconic Bay Medical Center stated that they “cannot comment on any individual patient due to federal and state laws that prohibit the disclosure of protected health information.”

Carla Canning Email is an engagement journalist and former Tow audience engagement fellow at The Marshall Project. At the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, she created a website guide for people visiting loved ones incarcerated in New York State prisons. She recently traded in her lifelong New Yorker status for sunny Southern California.