Maryland takes great strides for the reproductive rights of women inmates!

In early April, the Maryland General Assembly approved two new bills that will greatly affect the healthcare of women inmates. Maryland becomes the first state to require a written reproductive healthcare and services policy for pregnant inmates and detainees. Lawmakers in Maryland approved measures requiring correctional facilities to have free menstrual hygiene products available upon request. The House and Senate both unanimously passed the hygiene product bill. Last summer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons declared that all federal prisons must give women free access to menstrual products. Women make up less than 7% of those housed in federal prisons, and so it is imperative to also push these bills at a state level.

The second bill disallowed the use of shackling of pregnant inmates throughout pregnancy and during labor, except in individualized cases when determined necessary by the medical professional responsible for the care of the inmate. Shackling pregnant women is inhumane and unnecessary. This bill also mandates that information on abortion access, adoption, kinship adoption and foster-care be made available to all pregnant inmates, along with new updates to prenatal care and miscarriage care procedures. This bill will be put into effect in October of this year.

The momentum for women’s rights in Maryland continues with the passing of the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act that enables pregnant rape victims to terminate parental rights of their rapist. Advocates in Maryland have been pushing for this bill to pass for over a decade. Currently, 45 states and Washington, D.C. have laws in place that allow the victim to limit or terminate the parental rights of their rapists.

Both the bill disallowing the shackling of pregnant inmates and the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act have been long advocated for in Maryland, so why are these bills finally being pushed through now? Maryland is now at an almost 35% ratio of women in state legislature positions, pushing it into the top 10 for representative gender equality in state legislatures in the country. Maryland also has a growing number of women led advocacy groups that are driven to get women’s rights bills signed into law.

When asked how these long desired bills were finally able to be pushed through, Brittany Oliver, the Founder and Director of  Not Without Black Women, said, “Those were important bills for women’s rights. We worked with a variety of organizations on these bills, including Reproductive Justice Inside. I think what we did was merge policy and organizing to finally get these bills passed. “

When asked what’s coming for women’s rights in Maryland during the next legislative session, Ms. Oliver replied, “This session just ended, so while we don’t yet have an official agenda for next session, one thing we are looking to advocate on is a bill making it illegal for police to have sexual relations with inmates.”

After this successful session, advocates in Maryland have nine months to prepare for the next legislative session. Along with women’s issues, they plan to push forward with economic issues including The Fight For $15, which would raise the minimum wage in Maryland, and a Gender Equity Bill, which would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their previous salary in hopes to close the gender and race pay gap. The struggle continues!

 

(Image Credit: The Hatcher Group) (Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Andre Chung)

Roxana Orellana Santos said NO! to eating while Latina

Roxana Orellana Santos with her husband and son

In northern Maryland, the Frederick County Council is finally considering repeal of their English-only ordinance, in effect since 2012. Whatever they finally decide, we can all thank Roxana Orellana Santos for opening the door to inclusion and common decency. It all began in October 2008 … with lunch.

Roxana Orellana Santos was eating her lunch outside her workplace when two Frederick County sheriff’s deputies approached her and asked about her immigration status. The deputies had no other reason to question Roxana Orellana Santos. Other than being Brown skinned and Latina looking, she had committed no offense. Nevertheless, the deputies determined that there was an outstanding civil deportation warrant, and took her in. Roxana Orellana Santos was held for 37 days without any criminal charges, again other than being Latina.

Roxana Orellana Santos said NO! No to the indignity and no to the violation of her rights. As she put it, “To be honest, he arrested me because I was sitting there and eating bread. She sued the County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and the two deputies. In 2001, the first court dismissed her case. In August 2013, a higher court agreed in large part with Roxana Orellana Santos. One of her attorneys Jose Perez explained, “It is apparent that the Frederick County deputies pre-textually stopped, questioned and detained Ms. Orellana Santos solely based upon her physical appearance at a time when the Fredrick County Sheriff was publicly trumpeting how many immigrants his office had arrested. This is the essence of racial profiling.”

Roxana Orellana Santos said, “I want this to end, once and for all. I want to be happy with my children. I want to go to the park with them and say `I am happy’ and know that no one will try to humiliate me.”

And now, seven years later, the Frederick County Council is rethinking an ordinance that targets and criminalizes those who speak languages other than English or who might prefer to speak in those languages, especially in high stress situations. And you know who was there, testifying at length? Roxana Orellana Santos. Thanks to her refusal to be discarded and thanks to her determination, we can all say, ¡A luta continua!

 

(Photo Credit: Milagros Meléndez-Vela / El Tiempo Latino)

What do you mean, sterilized without consent?

Last week, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill reads, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seems pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer.

And yet, this law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history.

The quick story is that the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, last year, that the California prison system had coerced women prisoners into sterilization. Lawmakers, and in particular the California Women’s Legislative Caucus, called for an investigation. A State audit showed that between 2005 and 2013, 144 tubal ligations were performed on women prisoners. At least 25% of these had no evidence whatsoever of informed consent. Most of the others were dicey. 88 of the women were Latina or Black, and 6 were “other”. All of the women, one hundred percent, had been jailed at least once.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson wrote the bill. She worked with Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the prisoners rights group Justice Now. They worked with former prisoners, such as Kelli Dillon, who could confirm the allegations and, more importantly, put a human face on the story. When the bill was presented, it passed unanimously, thanks to the great work of great investigative reporters, community organizers, legislators, and current and former women prisoners.

The law’s back-story raises many concerns. Between 1909 and 1964, California had compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people of color, the poor, the disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and prisoners. About 20,000 men and women were sterilized without any pretense of consent. Forced sterilization laws were officially banned, by the California legislature, in 1979.

Prison doctors and administrators found loopholes in the ban, and they were back in business, and the only possible witnesses are `unreliable’. After all, they’re repeat offenders, many with low levels of formal education and many with “too many children.” And they’re women, mostly women of color.

In Maryland, when State Delegate Mary L. Washington discovered that women prisoners were being shackled in childbirth, she replied, “Wait. What do you mean, shackled?” When she learned that shackled meant shackled, she launched what she figured was a no-brainer, a ban on shackling women prisoners in childbirth. It took two years of lots of brain and brawn to get that no-brainer passed.

These crimes by the State succeed because the population at large has been persuaded, for decades, that these women are the problem, and it’s best to leave the problem to the experts, prison doctors and prison guards. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world of what-do-you-mean.

In California, members of Justice Now are organizing an education campaign for current women prisoners and another for former prisoners. We all need that education. What do you mean, sterilized without consent? What do you mean, shackled?

 

(Photo credit: CDCR via Common Dreams)

Shackling pregnant women prisoners violates the law and women’s rights!

This past session, Maryland passed anti-shackling bill HB 27. It took two years to pass a bill that protects pregnant inmates from being shackled. The Maryland bill passed along with one in Massachusetts, making these the 19th and 20th states to have such legislation. A number of states have passed anti-shackling bills restricting the use of restraints. Still, these bills don’t guarantee protection of the right for dignity of pregnant inmates, especially considering that most pregnant inmates are African Americans, Latinas, American Indians or members of other stigmatized communities.

The Maryland bill was enacted on July 1, and already the question of monitoring and enforcement has emerged. Why? In the states where these “anti Shackling” bills have been enacted, women detainees are still being shackled.

Recently, some cases of shackled pregnant or post partum inmates made the news, in horrific cases of women who were degraded in the process and had long term health consequences or were put at risk of having complications for being shackled during pregnancy, labor or post partum. Equally shocking is that the reasons or justifications given ranged from lack of training of personnel in charge to lack of enforcement power attached to the bill. According to one report, “Many correctional systems, doctors, guards and prison officials simply are not told about anti-shackling laws, or are not trained to comply”

How can professionals in charge of women prisoners ignore what constitutes torture, despite “modern” means of communication? Speculators can place financial orders to make enormous amount of money in a nanosecond, but a bill that forbids torture needs so much effort to be understood? What type of training is needed to see that a pregnant women walking with chains or having chains around her waist is torture?

Despite anti-shackling legislation, pregnant women in Texas are constantly at risk of being shackled. New York passed an anti-shackling law in 2009. Recently, in a survey of 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons, 23 said that they have been shackled before, during or right after their delivery.

The women prison population is on the rise. The official language is that the vast majority goes to prison for non-violent offenses. The reality is their social position makes them more vulnerable to being punished for pitiful reasons. Meanwhile the punishment inside the prison is constant and degrading. Abuses go from restricting the number of maxi pads for periods per month and per woman, unless the woman pays for more, to restricting motherhood, making it difficult to keep contact with already born children as well as guaranteeing decent conditions for pregnancy, delivery and post partum recovery.

70% of incarcerated women are mothers, and about 6% are pregnant. Still, women inmates are treated like men. In Maryland during the discussion of the anti-shackling bill, testimonies arguing against the bill presented possibility of escape as a major risk. All the “evidence” concerned men’s attempts to escape while being transported to hospital. No one said anything to correct this. Women who are pregnant don’t escape. There has been no incident of women in labor escaping or causing harm.

The anti-shackling bills have also a tendency to be weak in the protection of pregnant women. In Maryland a series of amendments dulled the impact of the introduced bill. The language – including recognition of the conditions of pregnancy, the importance to comply with international human rights principles, and more precisions about the monitoring of use of restraints if deemed necessary of HB 27 – was crossed out. Still, this bill is important, and it is what we have in Maryland. All efforts should now go to monitoring the application and enforcement of the bill so pregnant inmates are not left alone to deal with abuses.

So far, when pregnant or post partum inmates are shackled in anti-shackling states, the response is a lawsuit. “But there is no policing entity that’s really going to hold these institutions responsible.”

The conclusion should be clear and should include the entire United States. The United States should pass a clear federal law that prohibits shackling pregnant incarcerated women. Why not become more human and make the incarceration of pregnant women more difficult if not impossible? Why not stop the cycle of violence and torture? Women’s right to dignity has to be defended at the national level. A right is a right, and a law to protect women’s dignity is a law!

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

Women need more than a day to become visible and full human beings

March 8 was International Women’s Day. Two recent events in the United States show that we need more than a day to establish women’s rights.

While bills to ban shackling pregnant women in custody were being discussed in both Maryland and in Massachusetts, a Virginian lawmaker declared, “Once a child does exist in your womb, I’m not going to assume a right to kill it just because the child’s host (some refer to them as mothers) doesn’t want it.” After being roundly criticized, he said that his words were taken out of context and what he really meant was bearer instead of host.

Meanwhile, in Maryland at the hearing of HB 27 Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act, lawmakers pondered how to “manage pregnant women” in prison. They focused on security issues for guards and the general public and what possible incidents could occur if pregnant inmate walk without shackles. Responding to a delegate’s question on the history of escape by pregnant inmates, one witness for the Department of Public Safety said, “ We are not aware of any incident like this but we want to make sure.”

As they debated whether the bill was not too lenient on pregnant inmates, a delegate wondered, “How do we go back about writing a bill? Precisely what is the nature of the security issues?” Again the Department reported zero incidents. Throughout the discussions of `safety and security’, the actual facts and realities of being incarcerated while pregnant and possibly being shackled became invisible and the safety of the women was of no concern.

All that changed with the testimony of Delegate Mary Washington, the Bill’s sponsor; Sara Love, Public Policy Director of ACLU Maryland; and Jacquie Robarge, Executive Director of Power Inside, an organization that “serves women impacted by incarceration.”

Jacquie shared a report from inmates who witnessed pregnant women shackled during transport. No officials take notice of the lived situations of incarcerated women. A code of silence permeates prisons and jails, and so the only way to know what is happening comes from other inmates. That is why such a bill is necessary. For lawmakers, however, the main point of contention was to make sure that the “host” could be controlled at any time.

In Virginia, State Senator Steve Martin’s `host’ response to the valentines’ card sent by reproductive rights advocates, via Facebook, reminded women that their reproductive capacity made them less than a full being in a state that claims to protect democratic values. It comes as no surprise that Senator Martin supported both the mandatory ultrasound bill as well as the personhood bill. Fortunately, the `hosts’ organized and defeated both bills.

The Maryland and Virginia examples reveal the position of women in the minds of too many lawmakers today. Women need more than a day to become visible and full human beings.

(Photo Credit: Grassroots Leadership)

Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women: Women are the etc.

In Annapolis today, the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee is scheduled to conduct hearings on HB27, the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. Delegates Mary L. Washington, Ariana B. Kelly, and Barbara A. Robinson sponsored the bill. Its synopsis reads: “Prohibiting the use of a physical restraint on an inmate while the inmate is in labor or during delivery; requiring the medical professional responsible for the care of a specified inmate to determine when the inmate’s health allows the inmate to be returned to a correctional facility after giving birth; prohibiting, with specified exceptions, a physical restraint from being used on a specified inmate; requiring a correctional facility to document specified use of a physical restraint; etc.”

Etc. Women are the etc.

Across the United States, women are being imprisoned at a high rate, higher than any other group, according to some reports. From 1977 to 2004, Maryland `enjoyed’ a 353 percent increase in women going to prison. Maryland has one women’s prison, in Jessup. In Jessup, the women prison population breaks down as follows: 53 percent are Black women; 46 percent are White women. (Almost ¾ of Maryland’s prison population is Black, while only 30% of Maryland’s population is Black.)

Most of the women are in for drug-related offenses. Many are in for longer terms, `thanks’ to Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing policies.

Mary Washington introduced a similar bill last year, which was so watered down in committee that it was gutted of any serious content. Hopefully this year’s bill will fare better. Washington has been working with the ACLU of Maryland; Power Inside, a Baltimore group that “serves women impacted by incarceration, street life and abuse”; law faculty from the University of Maryland Law School; students from the University of Maryland – Baltimore County; members of Women In and Beyond the Global; and others.

According to Washington, “One of challenges that these women face is that they are permanently scarred, emotionally and in some ways physically, from being restrained during pregnancy and during birth.”

Maryland is one of a number of states in which legislators are trying to ban the shackling of pregnant women prisoners. In each state, part of the struggle is that women are the etc. Opponents suggest security and flight risks; they share anecdotes of prisoners who have escaped while in hospital. Those anecdotes never involve women, much less pregnant women, much less women in labor or childbirth. Last year, when those anecdotes were presented to the Judiciary Committee, no one mentioned that salient issue.

Women are the etc.: women of color, working women, women prisoners, women. The Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women involves all women, any woman, every woman.

 

(Photo Credit: DaretobePowerful.com)

Michigan: Demand clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates!

In Maryland, incarcerated women are struggling for the right to safe and humane birthing conditions.  Currently, Maryland practices the shackling of pregnant inmates before, during, and after labor and the delivery of their babies.

But this isn’t the only state where that proverbial glow radiating from expectant mothers is dulled by the heavy chains habitually used to restrain them.  In fact, only 18 states have legislation limiting the use of shackles on pregnant women.  Michigan is one of those states.

Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti is the only women’s prison in Michigan.  According to the operating procedures at HVCF, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed during transport to the hospital, even if they are in active labor. At the hospital, the prisoner’s handcuffs are removed and no other form of restraint may be used during labor and delivery, with exceptions through authorization.  However, there is no state legislation mandating this practice.  Furthermore, not all incarcerated women are housed at Huron Valley; many serve their sentences in local jails throughout the state.  What are the operational procedures, if any, that protect pregnant and postpartum women there?  And how is HVCF held accountable to make sure they comply with operating procedures?

There are three main reasons why we should be concerned about the shackling of pregnant inmates: 1.) cruelty, trauma, and humiliation associated with shackling, 2.) the significant health risks they pose to pregnant women, and 3.) constitutionality. According to the ACLU, every single court that has consider the practice of shackling women during labor has found it to be unconstitutional.

On Tuesday January 28th, Maryland lawmakers will gather in Annapolis to decide on the fate of HB27, the “Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act.”  Michigan should follow Maryland’s lead by demanding clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates.

 

(Photo Credit: Michigan Department of Corrections)