A study published in The American Journal of Public Health on Thursday found that about 4 percent of women who were currently incarcerated in state prisons in the United States were pregnant when they were first admitted.
While overall prison rates have declined, the number of incarcerated women has been increasing at about a rate of 800 percent. The study found that in a single year out of the 56,262 women included in the study, imprisoned women had 752 live births, 46 miscarriages, four stillbirths, and 11 abortions. Despite the increasing female population in prisons, there is a severe lack of research on women’s health and no procedure in place to track pregnancies within prisons. Researchers hope that the new data will urge legislators to address incarcerated women’s health.
Pregnant prisoners in US prisons and jails face harsh and sometimes dehumanizing treatment. These women often struggle to access physical and mental health care. In many states, it is common practice to shackle female prisoners while they are in labor or even while they are giving birth regardless of whether or not the inmate has a history of violent behavior. This practice of shackling pregnant women furthers the trauma incarcerated women already endure in the US prison system.
In Maryland, a new bill proposes to ban the practice of involuntarily putting pregnant inmates in restrictive housing. Current policy and practice, automatically places women in their third trimester of pregnancy in a medical infirmary, including women who have not been convicted of a crime yet. Several prisoner rights’ advocates have acknowledged that these infirmaries are actually solitary confinement cells with cases of women being left alone for over 24 hours with no emergency call button and even resulting in in-cell births.
In addition to the mistreatment of pregnancy, incarcerated women, in general, struggle to access feminine hygiene products. In some institutions, pads and tampons are distributed at the leisure of correctional officers and women often have to trade with other inmates in order to obtain them. For most women, they are required to request pads or tampons from correctional officers and they are given products on an “as-needed basis” or are required to purchase products at high prices at the prison commissary. In more severe cases, women are left with improvised supplies such as medical gauze or with no tampons or pads at all.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act and the Federal Bureau of Prison’s policy in 2017 both required all federal prisons with women inmates to provide pads, tampons, and panty liners for free for incarcerated women. The bill also banned shackling pregnant women or putting pregnant women in solitary confinement. However, several state and local institutions have not followed suit. Earlier this month, a GOP state representative in Maine implied that access to free tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups would make prisons like “a country club.”
Women inmates are also often overlooked when discussing sexual violence. Between 2009 and 2011, women accounted for 67 percent of staffer-on-prisoner sexual victimization, but only represented 13 percent of all people in jail. Furthermore, 86 percent of women in jails are already survivors of sexual violence. With two-thirds of female inmates being women of color, sexual violence victims in prison are vulnerable, marginalized, and overlooked, with little to no safeguards or accountability in place for survivors.
“You have people who are primarily men in positions of basically absolute power over a captive – literally captive – population,” said Diana Block, founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which is helping with a lawsuit against a state prison where two guards sexually harassed, humiliated, and abused three inmates for hours. “All the dynamics of sexism and patriarchy and sexual violence that are very prevalent in the society as a whole are translated directly into the conduct and behavior within prisons with very little protection or surveillance or recourse.”
Media Resources: Think Progress 8/29/18; Glamour 3/20/19; Rewire.News 3/22/19; Associated Press News 3/21/19; Feminist Newswire 8/16/17