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Being a Corrections Officer Is Hard Enough. Doing the Job While Pregnant Is a Nightmare.

Lia McKeown says a California prison refused to adjust her job duties to accommodate her pregnancies. Now she’s suing for discrimination.

An illustration shows a portrait of a White woman with blue hair and green eyes, wearing a black T-shirt.

Several months into Lia McKeown’s first pregnancy while working as a corrections officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), she asked to change roles. Her job had become too physically demanding, and she needed a position with less daily movement and more predictability.

For years, the CDCR had a “reasonable accommodation” policy that allowed pregnant corrections officers to transfer roles during their pregnancies while retaining their pay and benefits. But in 2015, the department instituted a new policy forcing pregnant officers to stay in physically arduous and dangerous positions — or risk losing their jobs, a class-action lawsuit alleges.

Roughly 300 corrections officers, including McKeown, have signed onto the lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2019. The plaintiffs are accusing the department of pregnancy discrimination, alleging they suffered miscarriages and lost wages when the policy was eliminated.

In 2020, CDCR restored the accommodation policy, but the lawsuit is ongoing. Here, McKeown reflects on the unique challenges and indignities of working in a prison while pregnant.

The first time I was pregnant while working as a corrections officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I was carrying my daughter, who is now 13. I had recently started working at California Medical Facility, a prison in Vacaville that houses men who are aging or physically or mentally ill.

For the first two years working as a corrections officer, you rotate around to get more experience throughout the institution. I would go from working in a standard housing unit — where I’d unlock cells each day during the daily count — to working in a housing unit for inmates with mental health needs.

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Being a corrections officer is a physically demanding job in general. At the time, the prison was way over capacity. If you put a bunch of people in that situation, they’re eventually going to fight each other. Fights would break out over anything, from drugs to lovers.

The staff also gets attacked. I’ve had feces, food and what I think was urine thrown at me. I have had inmates fight basically on top of me, throwing punches across my face. I’ve had inmates masturbate in their cells while saying the most grotesque, vulgar things. I’ve broken up fights over drugs and football games. All of this happens from the day you walk in, until the day you walk out.

I remember the day I decided to go on what is called “first watch,” a shift that begins at 10 p.m. and ends at 6 a.m. the next day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter and had just started showing. I was escorting new inmates off the bus to their cells. Even though we did not know what level of security they were being assigned to, they did not have to be handcuffed as they walked down the corridor.

One of the men I escorted said he had never seen an institution like this, where there was so much fighting. Of course, I knew there was fighting; I’d seen it every day. But when someone else calls it out, it makes it more real. At that moment, I realized I was putting myself and my baby in danger and that I needed to find a different position within the prison.

The first watch shift is a double-edged sword. There is no mass movement; everyone is locked in their cell. But you're also alone. In the middle of the night, there are far fewer staff to respond to an incident.

I remember bringing in a doctor’s note saying I was pregnant. I don’t think there was any written pregnancy policy at the time for corrections officers in California, but I just figured, like with any job, you bring in a note to say “This is what my limitation is,” and the company has to figure it out.

At the time, I was still on apprenticeship status, which means you don’t get a raise if you don’t finish. “OK, let’s just take this month by month,” I would tell myself. “Let's just see how far you could go.”

When the leadership realized I was pregnant, a sergeant came into my office and handed me a piece of paper. “You have to sign this because you’re a liability,” I remember him saying.

The paper stated that if anything happened to you or your child while working in the prison, you’re responsible for it. I remember thinking that I had never seen anybody else as pregnant as I was on the line at all. All of the pregnant women went to the mailroom or to the payroll department.

I worked up until the day before my daughter was born. I was huge, and there was no actual pregnancy uniform. At the time, we had jumpsuits that zipped in the front. So I would wear my jumpsuit fully open because I couldn’t zip it over my belly. I would put my work jacket over the jumpsuit and zip that up.

The second time I was pregnant while working at a prison, it was with my son, who is now 6.

I went to our union reps to say that I was going to get another note from my doctor letting the department know I was pregnant. This time, the union told me that leadership wouldn’t recognize my request for a different role. Prison leadership no longer moved anybody into a different job. I would have to stay on the line again.

This time, I just figured things out for myself. I worked double shifts up until I was five months pregnant, and then I put myself on “first watch” again. During my second pregnancy, there were inmates who would notice I was pregnant and ask, “What are you doing here?” Or they’d shake their heads as if to say, “This is crazy.”

I used to think people in upper management would intervene. I used to think they’d see me and my pregnant belly and say, “Hey, maybe we should do something about this before something actually happens.” But that never happened.

There is no official training for corrections officers about what to do when pregnant. No one ever told me about any accommodations. When I gave birth, I used all of my own time off for maternity leave. I took five weeks with my first child because that is all I had. I had four months with my second, and used all of my and my partner’s time off. (He is also a corrections officer.)

The only change I was allowed to make was wearing my shirt untucked when we got two-piece uniforms. I still had to wear all of my equipment: an alarm, a key ring, a baton, pepper spray and a radio. The keys alone are very heavy because we have to open 235 sets of doors. Altogether, I think the equipment weighs 11 to 15 pounds.

One of the most difficult aspects of being pregnant in prison is dealing with the smells. Some of the guys don’t shower. Others on the mental health side collect things. I’ve had inmates collect feces and lie in it or smear it from head to toe. Sometimes inmates get sick, and we’d still have to count as they were throwing up.

The third time I was pregnant working in a prison, I miscarried.

I was working in a dorm with the general population. A lieutenant told us we had to do a mass search of the cells. Many of the guys in my dorm were in wheelchairs, which some used to transport drugs around the prison. So we were looking for anything drug-related in their cells. One of the ways they hid the drugs or needles was by rolling the items up in a brown paper towel and then taping them to the back of the heavy metal lockers in their cells.

During the search, I moved one of the lockers. Within an hour, I felt tremendous back pain. I filled out an incident report form because I thought I had injured my back. But I was miscarrying. I remember getting into the car to leave my shift. I was profusely sweating. Instead of driving home, I drove myself to the hospital.

It was early in the pregnancy, and I wouldn’t have asked the prison for any accommodations because I knew the drill. Like with my previous pregnancies, I had planned to change roles later. I thought the dorm I was assigned to was fine because it was mostly older men with physical disabilities. I thought it was a safer place for me to be, but it wasn’t.

The last time I was pregnant while working as a corrections officer was with my daughter, who is now 3.

I remember responding to an alarm with another officer on duty. I was two months along at the time. We had to enter the cell of an inmate who just wanted to fight. I had bruises from my thigh to my ankle. But my co-worker was hurt the worst.

This was my last pregnancy. I knew no one was going to accommodate me or do anything. I just remember thinking, Here we are again.

I know for sure that working in prisons isn’t a man’s job, and it’s not a woman’s job, either. Many women work in corrections in order to make a life for themselves and their families. For years, prisons didn’t even hire women. So the leadership never had to think about what to do with pregnant officers.

Sometimes I think about how much worse it might be to be pregnant while working in a prison in other states. And I think about some of the women in California, who were not accommodated but are too scared to come forward. Things are definitely changing for women in prison. Sometimes we have to force change. That’s just how it is here.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s deputy press secretary responded to basic fact-checking questions but stated that “CDCR cannot comment on ongoing litigation. CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) are committed to operating in the safest manner possible while adhering to all applicable [st]ate and [f]ederal laws, rules and regulations relating to occupational safety and health.”

Nicole Lewis Twitter Email is the engagement editor for The Marshall Project, leading the organization’s strategic efforts to deepen reporting that reaches communities most affected by the criminal legal system.