Remembering Reproductive Rights for Prisoners

Pamela Merritt

The number of women in prison is growing at a staggering rate. We must include the challenges and issues incarcerated women face to reproductive health care access as we advocate for reproductive justice for all.

The recent news that the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that incarcerated women have a constitutional right to access abortion services caught my attention. It highlights the issue of reproductive rights for incarcerated women and reminds us that women are the fastest growing part of America's prison population.

2,319,258 people are incarcerated in America. The staggering reality is that 1 in 100 adults are in prison. A Pew Center on the States report found that, although men are still ten times more likely to be in jail, the numbers of incarcerated women are growing at a faster pace. Among women ages 35-39 years old, one in 265 are incarcerated. The racial break-down in that age group shows that one in 355 are white women, one in 297 are Hispanic women and one in 100 are black women.

Within these numbers are mothers, sisters, daughters and friends all facing the variety of reproductive health issues any woman "on the outside" may face. The only difference is that they face them while incarcerated with prison policies being weighed against their reproductive rights.

In her article Women in Prison, Pam Adams explores the work of psychologist Susan George, who studied the impact of incarceration on Illinois families. The article points out that the number of Illinois women incarcerated has nearly tripled in a decade, with many of those arrested as a result of incidents related to drug addiction and poverty, and with histories of sexual abuse and physical abuse. Many women had parents who were incarcerated and children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to go to jail.

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Mentor programs like Amachi Pittsburgh attempt to break the cycle of multi-generation incarceration. Amachi, modeled after Big Brothers Big Sisters with a target of children ages 4 to 18, is a faith-based program that partners with local churches to match at risk children with mentors; the goal being to break the cycle where the children of incarcerated adults become incarcerated adults themselves. Though the mentor programs have seen success, communities and families are still paying the price for America's reluctance to fight the war on poverty, reform drug policies and support risk reduction programs with the same passion shown the building of new prisons.

Among the women arrested for drug related offenses, drug addicted pregnant women are also targeted for incarceration based on drug use during pregnancy. In 2007 I was privileged to blog the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) Summit and hear the stories of women who have faced incarceration for using drugs during pregnancy. NAPW "seeks to protect the rights and human dignity of all women, particularly pregnant and parenting women and those who are most vulnerable including low income women, women of color, and drug-using women". Through their work NAPW gives a voice to women who are targeted for arrest and prosecution because of addiction and shines a light on the need for sane drug policies, affordable and quality healthcare and treatment options for pregnant women.

Women who continue their pregnancies behind bars face the challenge of poor nutrition, stress and the prospect of parenting from prison. Amie Newman's article Pregnant Behind Bars: The Prison Doula Project highlighted the work of The Birth Attendants who provide doulas to assist pregnant inmates. The doulas provide physical, emotional and psychological support before, during and after the birth of the baby. The article points out that some women are shackled during childbirth and that there are few resources available for keeping mother and child together after birth.

As activists we are constantly challenged to look beyond our world and connect studies with reality and policy to communities. One challenge before us is to vigilantly defend the reproductive rights of incarcerated women who remain vulnerable to the denial of access to abortion services. We are also challenged to include youth at risk due to the incarceration of a parent in our struggle. These young people need us to be mentors, participate in community programs and continue to demand the empowerment of comprehensive sex education.

Our struggle for reproductive freedom is key to the social justice movement and it must include the women within the one in 100 adults incarcerated in America.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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