Hello from SisterSong!

Contributed by Kate Harding
I just attended an amazing panel called Prisons as Agents of Reproductive Oppression. I had a hell of a time deciding which of the 13 awesome-sounding workshops to go to (a problem that’s only going to get worse as the conference goes on), so I went with the subject I felt I knew least about.


Rachel Roth spoke about the ways access to abortion is denied to women in jail or prison, which is pretty much what I was expecting to hear about. (A short list of obstacles: the authorities forcing women to pay for the procedure, transportation, and guards’ time or insisting upon a judge’s authorization; the refusal of care by medical providers; the refusal to assist women in arranging for the abortions; staff lying about it being a violation of the facility’s policy or categorizing abortion as elective and therefore not care a prisoner is legally entitled to.) But the first speaker was ‘ron daniella of TIP, the Trans/Gender-Variant in Prisons Committee, who discussed some of the abuses incarcerated trans and gender-variant people suffer, and drove home that reproductive justice is about “the capacity of all people to make families”– a right that’s abridged by incaraceration in tons of ways I’d never considered. ‘ron set the tone for a panel that covered a lot of ground in explaining how imprisonment destroy families.
Sophia Sanchez of The Girls’ Detention Advocacy Project at The Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco talked about how for younger women, the problem is often that they are dissuaded from taking on motherhood, told that they’ll be terrible mothers, subjected to environments (e.g., group homes) that make them incredibly vulnerable during pregnancy, and separated from the children they do have. Sanchez was instrumental in developing an Incarcerated Young Mothers’ Bill of Rights (scroll down and it’s on the left) that’s heartbreaking in its simplicity: the right not to be shackled during labor, for instance, or “to be informed about our children’s well-being and safety” don’t seem like things that incarcerated women and their allies should have to work their asses off to achieve. But they are.
Denise Dunkley of WORTH spoke about how, the topic of abuse and oppression in the prison system is not only a matter of beatings and rape and access to abortion. It’s about medical care being delayed or denied, about women learning the hard way not to trust anyone claiming to want to help them — and how that affects their reentry into their communities upon release. It’s about the corrections system having no higher authority to answer to. It’s about shocking facts like how the state of New York doesn’t require prison doctors to have medical licenses. All of these things contribute to stripping incarcerated women of their dignity and humanity. What happens when they try to function again on the outside?
Finally, Robin Levi of Justice Now talked about how prisons destroy women’s reproductive capacities in both blatantly horrifying ways — like coerced sterilization — and more subtle ones: abysmal health care that leads to infections and infertility, mandatory minimum drug sentencing and three strikes laws that keep women behind bars throughout their reproductive years. She told horror stories of hysterectomies and ovariectomies being performed as a matter of course during the removal of fibroid tumors, immediately after labor, or because of “cancer” that turned out to be fictional, of women being asked to consent to sterilization during labor or under sedation, let alone during times of extreme stress (which would include every day in prison or jail). You can see Justice Now’s Gender Justice Statement Opposing Prison Expansion and Eugenics on their website.
What’s the solution to all this? Get the women out of prison. The vast majority are there for non-violent crimes — often “crimes of survival” — and are of course disproportionately women from marginalized populations. The panelists suggested that activists can work for sentencing, parole and drug policy reform, and to oppose prison expansion — asking that the money earmarked for prison expansion be spent instead on providing more resources to at-risk communities.
Kate Harding is a Chicago-based writer who blogs about feminism and fat acceptance at Shapely Prose and about books at The Bibliophilistines.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted June 1, 2007 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the report on this conference. I heard Loretta Ross speak (I really want to say PREACH) at the prayer breakfast on the last day of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice conf a couple months ago — she was really powerful. Blew me away. She told us about the Sister Song conference and I was bummed to miss it.

  2. Posted June 1, 2007 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Yeah, she is an incredibly powerful speaker! The crowd went nuts every time she opened her mouth.

  3. natmusk
    Posted June 1, 2007 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I am really excited that you blogged on this! I am currently finishing up an externship working within a jail(different than prison) 99% of our women are in for nonviolent drug related charges. Thankfully I haven’t heard anything as horrendous as forced sterilization. Women who are brought in while pregnant are often kept through the course of their pregnancy. The general idea behind it is that it insures they are getting medical check ups and that they are not endangering their or the babies life’s with drug use. They are usually transported to the hospital during labor and contacts are called and after delivery mother and the baby are free to go home. Unfortunately with help not always being readily available or too expensive as well as combined with the fact that the individual may not want help they are often times right back within the jail system. It’s frustrating to watch and even the people that run my jail will say they don’t belong here but there is no where for them to go and honestly many of them are picked up when they are at a point where they are dangerously close to dying. The issue of women in the criminal justice system, not just their reproductive rights is huge right now….Also the women find that as mothers who are in jail they are subjected to much bias. It often will come up during their trial whereas with the men it is hardly mentioned..it’s apparently more acceptable for the men to have problems but the women are now mothers and therefore must be perfect

  4. Dave
    Posted June 1, 2007 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Any medical treatment that offenders have that is more complicated than a brace or medication is taken care of by medical staff outside the department of corrections. Do doctors screw up and get sued for malpractice? Sure. When it happens while the patient is under the supervision of the department of corrections really isn’t the responsibility of the department. The patient still reserves the right to bring a civil lawsuit.

  5. Posted June 1, 2007 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Dave –
    That doesn’t really address any of the problems Kate discusses in her post. Sure, there are isolated cases of malpractice that only involve the doctor, and these can be dealt with in the usual way.
    But there are also systematic abuses, many of them originating in the correctional system that cause a lot of the problems the panelists discussed. When medical care is denied by the correctional system or correctional officers coerce women into being sterilized, we’re not talking about malpractice. And there’s rarely any will on the part of voters or lawmakers to scrutinize the system, because in their eyes, we’re just talking about “bad people” who in their minds don’t deserve better. (I could go into a whole thing about what people in a *truly* Christian nation would treat the incarcerated, but that’s a subject for another time.)

  6. Posted June 4, 2007 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Yeah, Dave, a lawsuit doesn’t bring your uterus back.

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