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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation