Monika Krcova did not want to follow the official guidelines and remain in the hospital in Slovakia for four days after her third baby’s birth. And so she escaped.

Like many other Roma, she tells horror stories about giving birth in the hospital: How doctors at the Kezmarok hospital in eastern Slovakia slapped her face and legs repeatedly during the delivery of her first two children, screaming that she didn’t know how to push properly. How in the following days, she was subjected to racist taunts, and her postpartum pain was not treated.

Krcova knew that hospital staffers would stop her and her baby if she tried to leave after two days. So she waited until visiting hours, when the doors of the maternity ward were unlocked, and slipped away, alone.

Slovakia’s Ministry of Health strongly recommends four-day stays for mothers and babies, regardless of their health. But many hospitals — seeking insurance reimbursements — have turned that guidance into a mandate.

An investigation by The Associated Press has found that women and their newborns in Slovakia are routinely, unjustifiably and illegally detained in hospitals across the European Union country. Women from the country’s Roma minority, vulnerable to racist abuse and physical violence, suffer particularly. They’re also often poor, and mothers who leave hospitals before doctors grant permission forfeit their right to a significant government childbirth allowance of several hundred euros.

When Krcova returned to pick up her infant a couple of days after she left, the hospital charged her 20 euros ($23) — an illegal fine.

“It felt like punishment,” she said. “If you and your baby are healthy and you have to stay there, it’s like prison.”

In October, the AP reported that hospitals in more than 30 countries illegally hold patients when they cannot pay their bills, including in Kenya, Congo, India, the Philippines and Bolivia. While there are some differences, some experts say the situation in Slovakia — which also is seen to some extent in other eastern European countries like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic — amounts to hospital imprisonment.

Jarmila Noskova, a Roma woman now pregnant with her seventh child, said she cried for days every time she was forced to remain in the hospital after birth, terrified the hospital would alert the police if she left.

“I was told to stay in the hospital,” she said, “and so I endured it for my baby.”