Thursday, February 2, 2023

Pregnant in jail: VPRJ preserves ‘private’ moment of giving birth for mothers

Allison Bellamy, 31 (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Allison Bellamy, 31 (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Allison Bellamy was pregnant when she arrived at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in July 2018.

By January, the 31-year-old’s due date was looming on the horizon — and she was still in jail, a year-and-a-half sentence having recently been handed down in December.

But come the end of January, Bellamy had her baby in the comfort of a hospital room, no correctional officer or handcuffs present. The only symbol of her ongoing incarceration was an ankle monitor clipped around one leg.

“I was able to go to and from the [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] and see my baby as I wanted to,” Bellamy said during an interview in early April. “I am so thankful.”

Bellamy was granted bond by the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Jan. 23, allowing her to have her baby in a hospital with only an ankle monitor in the room.

“The ability to give birth in a private room in a very personal moment, I don’t want to look at it like that should be an added punishment for someone who committed a crime,” said Tony Pham, VPRJ superintendent. 

Some inmates who have given birth over the years have had officers in the room as they gave birth, Pham said.

“My hopes are it presents an opportunity for a robust discussion about what are our alternatives,” Pham said.

Taking care of pregnant women

While the jail has a medical unit to provide medications and care to inmates, those services do not include an obstetrician.

Women are taken to and from obstetrician appointments as-needed.

The jail also offers prenatal vitamins for free to expectant mothers.

Policy

The flexible approach in handling VPRJ inmates who are giving birth mirrors some prior legislative action by the state.

In 2014, Virginia passed a law regulating the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in jails, including during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery, according to the ACLU of Virginia. The regulations also leave the decision on restraints up to medical providers, not the correctional officers.

Pham said Bellamy’s pregnancy and delivery are not necessarily a reflection of the jail’s specific policies on pregnant inmates, but show one option for women that need to give birth while in custody.

Each pregnancy is handled on a case-by-case basis, as those situations don’t frequently arise, Pham said.

There are currently two pregnant women in custody at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail out of about 50 female inmates total. That number ebbs and flows, Pham said.

Since Pham became superintendent at the jail more than a year ago, there have been two women to give birth while in custody, one of which was Bellamy in January.

“At that point, we’re no longer looking at them as an inmate — they’re a patient,” Pham said.

Deciding factors

Like many situations at the VPRJ, such as becoming a trusty or workforce team member, inmates’ privileges depend on their classification.

A classification takes into account whether the inmate has been sentenced, the nature of their charges and their behavior in jail.

Deciding what happens with a pregnant inmate during delivery also depends on their classification, to an extent.

Giving birth is a medical situation and is treated as such, Pham said. Pregnant inmates are taken to hospitals to give birth, but the circumstances surrounding the birth can be changed depending on their classification.

For Bellamy, who was convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer, Pham worked with the courts to give her an ankle monitor and bond to have her child privately.

When it comes to being discharged, women are not taken back to jail until their doctor writes an official discharge order and medically clears them for release. Then, they return to the VPRJ.

May is for Mother’s Day

With Mother’s Day just around the corner May 12, Pham is also giving the women of the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail a small gift: a free four-minute video chat with their families or loved ones.

The jail recently started a new tablet program that allows inmates to call home via video chat, which Bellamy said she uses often to see her newborn baby.

The calls typically cost 25 cents per minute, Pham said, which is waived for all female inmates between the morning of May 11 through the evening of May 12.

“We have opportunities to do something nice to let some grandmoms, moms, even the females that don’t have children that want to see their loved ones on video, be able to schedule a chat with their loved ones,” Pham said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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