Locking Down Women’s Rights

Rachel Roth

Women in prison are constitutionally entitled to abortion services, but prisons repeatedly stand in the way of women seeking to exercise that right.

Today, a federal court of appeals will consider a question of vital importance to the growing numbers of women behind bars: do women lose their reproductive rights when they go to prison?

The case arose when a young woman beginning a four-year sentence in Missouri was told she could not have an abortion. This represented a change in policy for the prison; in the past, women who could come up with the money were taken to a clinic for abortion care. Then in 2005, with a new anti-choice governor in office, the prison administration and the Department of Corrections reversed course, adopting a policy that categorically denies women access to abortion.

After weeks of being rebuffed by prison officials, “Jane Roe” wrote to the ACLU and eventually sued the prison. The court’s decision in her favor was straightforward, because the Supreme Court has been very clear that while states can enact policies to make getting an abortion more difficult, they cannot ban abortion altogether, as the Missouri prison had done. The Supreme Court has also made it clear that people do not automatically lose all of their constitutional rights when they cross the prison threshold. Jails and prisons must have a legitimate, prison-related reason for restricting such rights, and forcing women to bear children does not further any legitimate goal related to prison administration or crime control. Calling the decision an offense to its values, the Missouri government has asked the court of appeals to reinstate its unconstitutional policy.

For more than twenty years, courts have ruled that incarcerated women retain their abortion rights, and yet for all those twenty years, jails and prisons have continued to violate those rights. Across the country, women have been told by sheriffs to get a judge’s permission, something that takes time, money, and the services of a lawyer. Women are routinely told that they must pay not only for the abortion, but for the costs of employees’ time and of transportation, down to turnpike tolls, even though people in prison have a constitutional right to medical care. In many cases, these requirements are unwritten and ad-hoc, reflecting the whim of local officials. From California to New York, from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, women have wound up carrying pregnancies to term because jail officials stood in their way until it was too late to have an abortion – or until they gave up.

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Every woman has a lot to think about when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, but for women inside, the question takes on special urgency. Women may be concerned about the kind of prenatal care they will receive in prison and worried about what the future holds. Those facing long prison sentences may find the prospect of having a child unbearable. A woman serving as little as fifteen months can lose her parental rights if she has to place her child in foster care, even if she has never been accused of child abuse or neglect.

In recent years, politicians have made a concerted effort to restrict access to second-trimester abortions, and yet they create the very conditions that lead women to need later terminations. Prison officials delayed Jane Roe’s abortion by almost two months, subjecting her to a more expensive, more complicated procedure, and to weeks of worry about whether she would be able to get an abortion at all.

Women in prison are an easy target for anti-choice forces. Typically poor and disproportionately women of color, they are among the least powerful members of society. Isolation in prison, without ready access to information or even a telephone, diminishes their power even further.

The struggles of women inside represent the need to keep closing the gap between rights as ideas and rights as tools we can use to shape our lives. Even with the courts on their side, incarcerated women still find they have to go to extraordinary lengths to carry out their reproductive decisions. If their rights can be negated, whose will be next?

News Human Rights

Feds Prep for Second Mass Deportation of Asylum Seekers in Three Months

Tina Vasquez

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force fed.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for the second time in three months, will conduct a mass deportation of at least four dozen South Asian asylum seekers.

Those asylum seekers include Mahbubur Rahman, the leader of #FreedomGiving, the nationwide hunger strike that spanned nine detention centers last year and ended when an Alabama judge ordered one of the hunger strikers to be force-fed.

Rahman’s case is moving quickly. The asylum seeker had an emergency stay pending with the immigration appeals court, but on Monday morning, Fahd Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based organization of youth and low-wage South Asian immigrant workers, told Rewire that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer called Rahman’s attorney saying Rahman would be deported within 48 hours. As of 4 p.m. Monday, Rahman’s attorney told Ahmed that Rahman was on a plane to be deported.

As of Monday afternoon, Rahman’s emergency stay was granted while his appeal was still pending, which meant he wouldn’t be deported until the appeal decision. Ahmed told Rewire earlier Monday that an appeal decision could come at any moment, and concerns about the process, and Rahman’s case, remain.

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An online petition was created in hopes of saving Rahman from deportation.

ICE has yet to confirm that a mass deportation of South Asian asylum seekers is set to take place this week. Katherine Weathers, a visitor volunteer with the Etowah Visitation Project, an organization that enables community members to visit with men in detention at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, told Rewire that last week eight South Asian men were moved from Etowah to Louisiana, the same transfer route made in April when 85 mostly Muslim South Asian asylum seekers were deported.

One of the men in detention told Weathers that an ICE officer said to him a “mass deportation was being arranged.” The South Asian asylum seeker who contacted Weathers lived in the United States for more than 20 years before being detained. He said he would call her Monday morning if he wasn’t transferred out of Etowah for deportation. He never called.

In the weeks following the mass deportation in April, it was alleged by the deported South Asian migrants that ICE forcefully placed them in “body bags” and that officers shocked them with Tasers. DRUM has been in touch with some of the Bangladeshis who were deported. Ahmed said many returned to Bangladesh, but there were others who remain in hiding.

“There are a few of them [who were deported] who despite being in Bangladesh for three months, have not returned to their homes because their homes keep getting visited by police or intelligence,” Ahmed said.

The Bangladeshi men escaped to the United States because of their affiliations and activities with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition party in Bangladesh, as Rewire reported in April. Being affiliated with this party, advocates said, has made them targets of the Bangladesh Awami League, the country’s governing party.

DHS last year adopted the position that BNP, the second largest political party in Bangladesh, is an “undesignated ‘Tier III’ terrorist organization” and that members of the BNP are ineligible for asylum or withholding of removal due to alleged engagement in terrorist activities. It is unclear how many of the estimated four dozen men who will be deported this week are from Bangladesh.

Ahmed said that mass deportations of a particular group are not unusual. When there are many migrants from the same country who are going to be deported, DHS arranges large charter flights. However, South Asian asylum seekers appear to be targeted in a different way. After two years in detention, the four dozen men set to be deported have been denied due process for their asylum requests, according to Ahmed.

“South Asians are coming here and being locked in detention for indefinite periods and the ability for anybody, but especially smaller communities, to win their asylum cases while inside detention is nearly impossible,” Ahmed told Rewire. “South Asians also continue to get the highest bond amounts, from $20,000 to $50,000. All of this prevents them from being able to properly present their asylum cases. The fact that those who have been deported back to Bangladesh are still afraid to go back to their homes proves that they were in the United States because they feared for their safety. They don’t get a chance to properly file their cases while in detention.”

Winning an asylum claim while in detention is rare. Access to legal counsel is limited inside detention centers, which are often in remote, rural areas.

As the Tahirih Justice Center reported, attorneys face “enormous hurdles in representing their clients, such as difficulty communicating regularly, prohibitions on meeting with and accompanying clients to appointments with immigration officials, restrictions on the use of office equipment in client meetings, and other difficulties would not exist if refugees were free to attend meetings in attorneys’ offices.”

“I worry about the situation they’re returning to and how they fear for their lives,” Ahmed said. “They’ve been identified by the government they were trying to escape and because of their participation in the hunger strike, they are believed to have dishonored their country. These men fear for their lives.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.