New report on the treatment of mothers and pregnant women in U.S. prisons

Yesterday the National Women’s Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights released a new report, “Mothers Behind Bars,” on the treatment of pregnant and parenting women in U.S. state prisons. The picture the report paints—like most glimpses into our broken prison system—is not a pretty one.

According to the report, there are more women behind bars than ever before in U.S. history and, thanks to the mandatory sentencing laws of the war on drugs, the majority of those women are non-violent, first-time offenders. They are also mothers. Two-thirds of women in prison have at least one child under age 18.

And our state prisons are failing these “unseen and largely forgotten” women. The report graded states based on their policies in three key areas: prenatal care, shackling of pregnant women, and family-based treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration. Overall, 21 states received failing grades. Another 22 states earned a C—which in my book is still pretty shitty. Only Pennsylvania, which got an A-, really has anything to be proud of when it comes to treating women in prison like actual human beings with a right to quality health care and humane treatment.

Some key findings:

  • Forty-one states do not require prenatal nutrition counseling or the provision of appropriate nutrition to incarcerated pregnant women.
  • Thirty-four states do not require screening and treatment for women with high-risk pregnancies.
  • Only ten states have laws limiting the shackling of pregnant women during transportation, labor and delivery, and postpartum recuperation.
  • Seventeen states have no family-based treatment programs for non-violent women who are parenting.
  • Thirty-eight states do not offer any prison nursery programs to new mothers behind bars.

When the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, something is wrong. When we think it’s acceptable to shackle pregnant women while they’re in labor, something is wrong. When we don’t do everything we possibly can to provide treatment programs for non-violent women who have children, instead of putting the mothers behind bars and the children in foster homes, something is wrong.

The severe neglect of incarcerated pregnant women, mothers, and their families is just yet another reason—from rampant sexual abuse to the (literally) torturous effects of long-term solitary confinement—that future generations will surely condemn us for the horrible conditions in our prisons and the injustice of our mass incarceration system.

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  1. Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I am completely in favor of more humane treatment of pregnant women in prison. But prison nurseries? Creepy. I just don’t think criminals who are mothers should be treated any differently than criminals that are fathers. Plus I don’t think children should be imprisoned for the sins of their parents.

  2. Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to say that I really like this post. Also, it just frustrates me that the US looks so much to lock people up instead of trying to find out why there is so much “crime” that gives them a reason to confine people in cages. If putting people in prison really worked, then wouldn’t less people be committing crimes because they’re afraid to go to prison? Something has gone wrong in society that we have come to rely so heavily on putting people away. Sorry if this doesn’t make sense, just trying to get my thoughts out.

  3. Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    It’s a combination of short-term solution that ignores long-term consequences, plus a way to make money. I see it all over the place.

  4. Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “When the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, something is wrong.”

    There are some countries that don’t imprison people because they lack the resources to do so, so that factor contributes a little to this disparity. However, if we limit our focus to developed countries, the US is very unique in its incarceration numbers (except arguably Russia — if they had our resources, they may be able to match us).

    What I can think we can glean from the high incarceration rates and poor quality of prisons is that people in our culture generally don’t give a damn about prisoners. We (collectively) execute them, give them long sentences, allow unusual punishments, and tolerate prisoner abuse. We will even ignore crime in prison, as long as those “criminals” are “off the streets” and can’t bother us. It’s why we have hundreds of hours of crime shows on TV per week (mostly the investigative kind, like CSI and Law & Order, which feature the fake variety — you more likely have to watch movies to see where the focus is on the crime itself, but you can find that content, too) and hardly a thing about prisons (real or fake).

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