Incarcerated and Pregnant

How Societal Attitudes Affect the Sentencing and Treatment of Pregnant Inmates in Rural Tennessee


  • Mary De La Torre Middle Tennessee State University


This ethnographic case study examines how southern society’s views on motherhood
and criminal punishment when held by correctional staff and judges influence the sentencing and treatment of female inmates who are pregnant while incarcerated. The research was conducted at a county jail in rural Tennessee. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a male and a female correctional officer, the jail administrator, the jail’s nurse, a judge from the county, and three inmates. The interviews were then transcribed and analyzed for dominant themes. Nearly all the respondents held more traditional views on criminal punishment and motherhood. In addition, these views on motherhood, not the views on criminal punishment, had an impact on the sentencing of the pregnant inmates and how these inmate mothers were viewed by the staff. The inmates also appeared to internalize these views and to blame themselves for their incarceration. However, the inmates reported their prenatal care was good, so it did not appear to affect how they were treated. This study does have limitations, though, such as its small sample, the fact that housing pregnant inmates was a relatively new issue for this specific jail, and that the inmates’ responses may have been influenced by the presence of a prison authority. It is also just a snapshot of this small, rural area at this time, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized to other areas. However, this research is important because it suggests that certain societal attitudes in small, rural, southern areas when held by correctional staff and judges can influence pregnant inmates’ sentences and how they are viewed by the staff.