Cook County Jail in Chicago is notorious as a place you don’t want to be. It is overcrowded, housing more than twice the number of inmates it is designed to hold.
About 800 of the nearly 10,000 inmates are women. Over the past year and a half, 325 of those women were pregnant during their stay at Cook County, and a dozen gave birth while incarcerated.
In the past there have been reports of women being handcuffed while giving birth at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, which prompted a class action lawsuit against the county.
But last week, Cook County Jail opened a new center for pregnant mothers. There are no cells in the new section. The women are given prenatal care and classes on nutrition and parenting. It sounds almost like a live-in crisis pregnancy center.
This new approach to pregnant inmates is good news. It helps to give these women the dignity they deserve and which has eluded them so far. They are probably in jail because they have no self esteem and have not aspired to anything good. Perhaps their stint at Cook County will be a changing point in their lives.
According to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the new program stems from a desire to offer more humane conditions for new mothers and to try to cut down on the costs associated with recidivism. Women who complete a parenting class are also permitted to have visits with their other children.
Helping women to realize the dignity of motherhood is a big part of both sidewalk counseling and the work of pregnancy resource centers. Motherhood has taken a beating in the past fifty years. Often women do not recognize the importance of giving and nurturing life. Yet it is the most important relationship any person will ever have.
The effort on the part of Cook County Jail should be replicated in other institutions and places where pregnant women may get a second chance to get it right.