FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Rhonda Woods' baby was due two weeks before her parole date and she didn't want the child to be born behind bars.
"I never had to leave a baby in the hospital and go back to jail," says Woods, 23, of Boston, whose 6-month sentence for disorderly conduct kept her at the Massachusetts Prison for Women during much of her pregnancy.
She is one of hundreds of pregnant women or new mothers nationwide who pose a problem for prison and jail officials faced with balancing concerns about the safety of society with those for unborn children.
"Some states are more enlightened than others, but I would say that prison pregnancy is systematically a widespread, very serious problem," says Ellen Barry, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, a San Francisco-based national advocacy group for women prisoners.
Series of Lawsuits
Barry and several other prisoner advocates are involved in a spate of lawsuits against correctional systems, pressing for better diets, improved health care and help with custody issues for pregnant inmates.
In California, advocates negotiated a settlement in a class-action lawsuit that accused prison officials of denying pregnant women adequate diets and medical care.
In Connecticut, officials are negotiating a new agreement to replace one that expired last year in a similar lawsuit brought by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.
Massachusetts prisoner advocates, who have also filed a suit, are working with state and local leaders to provide alternatives to prison cells for pregnant women accused or convicted of crimes.
Other states have adopted such innovative programs as maternity leaves for pregnant prisoners and have rejuvenated old programs such as prison nurseries.
In some countries, judges are barred from putting pregnant women behind bars. In Italy, for example, a 42-year-old woman avoided serving a 10-month sentence for 10 years by repeatedly getting pregnant.
Judges in the United States tend to avoid sentencing pregnant women or mothers of small children to time behind bars, legal and correctional officials say. Sometimes, however, the sentence may be imposed out of concern for the baby, whose imprisoned mother often may be a drug addict.
"Actually, what the judge did helped me," says Janet Jacques, 25, of Worcester, Mass., a pregnant cocaine addict who is serving six months for drug trafficking. "I don't want to say I like being here, because it's a prison--but if nothing else, it has helped my baby."
She said she had been eating better, taking prenatal vitamins regularly and staying off drugs--unlike when she was pregnant and on the streets with her daughter, now 4.
For other pregnant women in prison, however, the outcome has been different.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed in California in 1985 claims that prison officials failed to respond to some pregnant women's emergencies and complications.
In one case, the suit alleged, a woman who was bleeding and suffering abdominal cramps was told that her pains were normal. She went into labor and was transferred to Riverside General Hospital, where her son was born and died two hours later.
Another woman who doctors said might need a Caesarean delivery allegedly was taken back to prison when correctional officers decided that she was not dilated enough.
When she returned 7 1/2 hours later, shackled and strapped to a bench in a security van, doctors said it was too late to perform the surgery. The baby suffered oxygen loss and was born with disabilities, the suit alleged.
Suits elsewhere claim that pregnant women were placed in cells or medical units with inmates who had not been examined and may have been carrying contagious illnesses that could affect the developing fetus.
Others allege that drug-addicted prisoners were forced to go through withdrawal "cold turkey."
Previous Poor Health
Prison officials say they are doing the best they can in overcrowded institutions and that many of the health problems stem from the mothers' poor medical care before arriving in prison. Most women inmates are poor; many are drug addicts.
"The fact is most inmates have not been exposed to quality medical care before they get to prison," says Robert Gore, assistant director of the California Department of Corrections, who declined to comment on specific charges in the California lawsuit.
At any given time, 6% of the nation's female prison population and 10% of the women in county jails may be pregnant, Barry estimates.
Many problems, she says, stem from "glitches and a lot of ill will." She recalls an inmate whose baby was coming quickly but who had to wait 45 minutes at the prison gate while guards processed paper work.
But security concerns must come first, prison officials say.
'A Prison First'
"This is a prison first and when we forget that, we'd better find new jobs," says Martha Rice, program director at the Framingham prison. She recalls one pregnant woman who was placed in maximum security.