The scary reality of being pregnant in prison

Prison inmate Julie Bilotta made headlines when she nearly died giving birth in jail. We uncover the shocking reality of what it means to be pregnant behind bars in Canada.

Photo: Claudiad/iStockphoto

Julie Bilotta, the Cornwall-born inmate who gave birth to her first son, Gionni, on the floor of a jail cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre September 29 because guards and nurses didn’t believe she was in labour, is still awaiting the outcome of three separate investigations into her shocking birth story.

Bilotta and baby Gionni have been living at J. F. Norwood House, a transition residence run by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, since she was released from custody in October. Her bail conditions impose a strict curfew and staff supervision when she leaves the facility. Other JFNH residents, many of them separated or estranged from their own children, have been delighted to help care for the baby boy.

Bilotta, who was eight months pregnant and in remand custody awaiting trial on fraud- and drug-related charges, underwent a blood transfusion as a result of excessive blood loss during the high-risk, breech birth. Her release from custody was likely due to the barrage of media coverage. But most women’s complaints from behind bars go unheeded and unnoticed. (In an eerily similar account of neglect, 35-year-old Kinew James died January 20 of an apparent heart attack at a Corrections Canada psychiatric prison in Saskatoon. Fellow inmates say guards ignored a distress alarm and her repeated calls for help. Corrections Canada is now reviewing the circumstances of James’ death.)

Elizabeth Fry Societies across Canada provide assistance to women involved in the Canadian criminal justice system and advocate for the rights of women in prison. Bryonie Baxter, the executive director of the Ottawa society, was instrumental in raising Bilotta’s concerns — and what she calls the systemic abuses that women endure behind bars, especially regarding healthcare. “They punished her for being in labour. It’s barbaric,” said Baxter. “And regardless of what you think about the rights of the mother, we have to think of how the rights of the child have been violated.” The Ontario Minister of Correctional Services, the provincial ombuds office and the Ontario College of Nurses are all investigating why Bilotta’s cries for help resulted in guards shuttling her into segregation instead of an ambulance.

Here are a few things you may not know about pregnancy and prison in Canada:

  • There are no special facilities for incarcerated mothers. If you give birth in a federal or provincial prison, custody of the baby goes to a willing and able kin or to the Children’s Aid Society. Visitation thereafter is through glass.
  • According to Corrections Canada, two thirds of incarcerated women have children under five years of age. Corrections Canada, under the Institutional Mother-Child Program, can allow women convicts to have their babies live with them behind bars on a full or part-time basis, but because of prison overcrowding, or the preference of individual wardens, it rarely happens, Baxter says. 
  • Women prisoners are entitled to the same level of healthcare as free women but Baxter has a long list of complaints from women whose health was compromised by inadequate access to care. Baxter described one 2010 case of a pregnant woman at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre who thought she was having a miscarriage because of profuse bleeding. They put the woman in the back of a Corrections van instead of calling an ambulance and stopped at a Tim Horton’s on the way to hospital.
  • Julie Bilotta was nearing her due date and not yet guilty of a crime when she was placed in remand custody to await trial. People are placed in remand prior to trial for three reasons: because they are a flight risk, a danger to the public or, in order to maintain confidence in the administration of justice. There are presently more adults in jail awaiting trial in this country than those found guilty and serving a sentence

Editor’s note: Author Lisa Gregoire is an Ottawa writer and board member of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa.