More Progress is Needed to Recognize the Dignity of Incarcerated Women

More Rrogress Needed To Recognize Dignity Of Incarcerated Women
“We must reflect on how much work there is left to do in reimagining justice for women.”

Finally, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine just released a first-of-its-kind study on rates of pregnancy and outcomes among women in prison in 22 states and the federal system. This study sheds much-needed light on the number of women who are pregnant while in prison and the outcomes of their pregnancies because, historically, those data have not been tracked by federal agencies or state prison systems. The research team found that during the one-year study period, almost 1,400 pregnant women were admitted to prison. More than 90 percent of those pregnancies ended in live births, with no maternal deaths.

A similar study of pregnancy outcomes among women incarcerated in local jails does not yet exist. As the authors of the Johns Hopkins study note, gaining a deeper understanding of women’s health care needs when they are incarcerated is critical for addressing those needs and optimizing outcomes. It’s also a matter of health equity, as black women are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

These are certainly examples of progress to be celebrated and replicated, and they represent just a portion of efforts happening all over the country to end mass incarceration of women—often led by formerly incarcerated women and people. Yet, as Women’s History Month ends, we must reflect on how much work there is left to do in reimagining justice for women, and we must approach that work with urgency. A recent comment from a state legislator that jails were “never meant to be a country club” during a discussion of legislation that would provide free pads and tampons to incarcerated women is indicative. First, the very real and harmful impact of jail incarceration on women and families has been well documented. Second, preventing women who are incarcerated from meeting their most basic health needs is not only dehumanizing, humiliating, and inequitable, it’s also dangerous.

As my co-authors and I wrote Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform in 2016, we sought to understand why women in jails had become the fastest growing correctional population—increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014, from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000. We learned quickly that the available data are scarce and largely dated, sometimes decades old. We are now partnering with communities to use their local data and to engage incarcerated women directly to gain a deeper understanding of drivers of women’s jail incarceration. We know that change will not come without centering this work on the human dignity of the women we meet.

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Kami could have walked out of the jail that day if only she could afford the $5,000 bond prescribed by the judge. But without the money, she was stuck behind bars, waiting for the court to decide whether she was guilty. Nationally, women are less likely than men to be able to bond out of jail. Women behind bars are also more likely to have a histo...

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  • Nissa Rhee
    Nissa Rhee
September 21, 2018
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