For women, ending slavery and involuntary servitude would be a benefit. A greater benefit would be ending prison.

On January 31, 1865, the U.S Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads in its entirety: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. According to the National Archives, “With the adoption of the 13th Amendment, the United States found a final constitutional solution to the issue of slavery.” Not altogether. There’s the matter of the exception clause, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which makes it perfectly legal, even Constitutional, to force incarcerated people to work for little or no pay. Yesterday, January 31, 2024, 159 years later, advocacy group Worth Rises released a study, “A Cost-Benefit Analysis: The Impact of Ending Slavery and Involuntary Servitude as Criminal Punishment and Paying Incarcerated Workers Fair Wages”. Where are the women in this study and in the current world(s) constructed and codified by the 13th Amendment’s exception? Where are the women, and where should they be?

According to the study, “This study projects that while society overall will benefit from abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in prison, and from paying fair wages for prison labor, those gains will fall disproportionately to groups and communities that have been most impacted by mass incarceration, specifically Black and Brown people, low-income people, and women …. Roughly 47% of incarcerated men and 58% of incarcerated women are the parents of minor children …. 58% of women in state or federal prisons have minor children,103 and most of them are single mothers, thus bearing sole responsibility for their young children …. Women — and Black and Hispanic women in particular — shoulder most of the financial costs of incarceration burdening families and loved ones. A recent study, for instance, showed that family members paid for court-related costs in 63% of criminal cases, and that 83% of these family members were women. The same study also found that 87% of the costs of staying connected through calls and visits similarly fell on women. Based on these data, this study projects that women will indirectly receive much of the economic benefit from fair wage payments to incarcerated workers.” Where are the women? Everywhere all at once and under attack.

While ending slavery and involuntary servitude are worthwhile, laudable and practical goals, is it enough? Consider the news just from the past week.

On Wednesday, the same day the study was issued, The Seattle Times reported, “Washington state has paid $9.9 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman whose cervical cancer grew terminal while she was incarcerated after prison doctors failed to adequately diagnose and treat the disease. In the latest of a series of deadly and expensive health care failures in state prisons, Paula Gardner, who was serving time for drug and burglary convictions, didn’t receive appropriate medical care for more than two years despite tests showing signs of possible cancer — and eventually a scan revealing a growth inside her uterus …. The settlement money will benefit Gardner for what remains of her life, as well as her two sons, who were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.”

On Monday, The Argus Leader reported, “The state [South Dakota] is facing a record average daily population of more than 600 women in the state’s two women prisons. That’s nearly double the prisons’ daily capacity.” Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko commented, “I do worry a little bit about the female institution if we don’t do something.”

Do something. More often than not, the response to overcrowding is to build more prisons, this even though Secretary Wasko made it clear that sentencing guidelines and, secondarily, substance abuse account for the fact that people were incarcerated in the first place. Building more prisons won’t address the injustice of the sentencing system nor will it address substance abuse.

Do something. Two weeks ago, in England, a court of appeals did something: “The court of appeal has quashed the prison sentence of a heavily pregnant woman so that she can give birth safely, in a case hailed as a landmark by campaigners.” Instead of the sentence she had received from a criminal court, five years for possession of a firearm and ammunition and serving two and a half years in prison, the judges gave the woman a two-year suspended sentence with a rehabilitation requirement.

The case occurred at all because the pregnant woman’s mother feared for her daughter’s life and contacted Level Up, “a feminist community campaigning for gender justice in the UK”. Level Up campaigns to keep pregnant women out of prison. Level Up gave the pregnant woman support and assistance. After the judges’ decision was rendered, Janey Starling, Level Up co-director, said: “This landmark judgment marks a sea change in sentencing practices. Several other countries do not imprison pregnant women or new mothers and England’s courts are beginning to catch up. Prison will never be a safe place to be pregnant. The prison ombudsman, Ministry of Justice and NHS have declared all pregnancies in prison as high risk. This means that when a judge sentences a pregnant woman to prison, they are sentencing her to a high-risk pregnancy. That is unconscionable.”

Slavery is unconscionable. Involuntary servitude is unconscionable. Refusing care is unconscionable. Toxic, life endangering overcrowding is unconscionable. Sentencing someone to high-risk pregnancy is unconscionable. Do something about it. Close the prisons and create the scales of justice anew. 159 years is too long.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image credit: 2nd Life Media Alamogordo Town News) (Photo Credit: Level Up / Elizabeth Dalziel)

#NoBabiesBehindBars: Prison will never, ever be a safe place to be pregnant

This week has been filled with movements towards improving the conditions of pregnant incarcerated people. The Missouri legislature considered the Missouri Prison Nursery bill, which would keep incarcerated mothers and their children together, in prison, for 18 months, establishing the Correctional Nursery Program. In Tennessee, the legislature is debating a bill that would end the shackling of incarcerated pregnant people. Similar laws have been passed in every state that borders Tennessee. The Alabama legislature is debating bills that would bring Alabama state prisons and jails in compliance with Federal legislation concerning incarcerated pregnant people. At present, the Alabama Department of Corrections does not include information on births and pregnancies in its monthly report. It’s just not important enough.

All these advances, and they are advances, come from the pain that pregnant people and people giving birth and people going through post-partum have suffered. All these advances, and they are advances, emerge from the extraordinary work of currently and formerly incarcerated people, especially women. Remember, for example, that Alabama’s women’s prison, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, has long been established to be a terrible place, a hellhole for women.

But we must remember that the United States is deeply committed to mass incarceration, so much so that people have to debate whether or not a woman in childbirth should be shackled to a bed. In 2006, Rebecca Figueroa was two months pregnant when she was arrested and sent to Riverhead Correctional Facility, a jail on Long Island, New York. She wasn’t worried because she knew she was innocent. Seven months later, because she refused to accept a plea bargain, because she was innocent, she was still In jail, and living with a high risk pregnancy. When she went into labor, she was finally taken to the hospital, where, during childbirth, her hand and her leg were shackled to the bed. Four months later, all charges were dropped: “The judge looked at me and said, `We apologize.’”

We apologize.

On Monday, 50 babies, and their parents, showed up at Parliament, in London, and demanded an end to incarceration of pregnant women. Level Up, an organization fighting gender injustice, and the campaign No Birth Behind Bars brought the group together. No births behind bars, no babies behind bars, no pregnant people behind bars. No more stillbirths such as those a Styal and Bronzefield in recent years. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of women going through childbirth while serving sentences rose 56%. 10% of those women never made it to a hospital. Most of those women are in for short sentences, involving non-violent offenses, not that that matters.

As Emma Hughes, of No Births Behind Bars, explained, “Nothing has been learned from the horrific deaths of two babies born in jail. Pregnant women and new mothers continue to be imprisoned by UK courts as part of a barbaric and outdated justice system. It is never OK for a baby to be in jail; it is never safe for a woman to go into labour in a cell, and pregnant women and babies in prison are exposed to lethal risks.”

`Anna Harley’ recounted, “When I was six months pregnant with my first child, I stood in court for the first time in my life and heard the words `remanded into custody’. This meant that I would be held in prison for six months as I waited for my trial date … No woman should suffer as I did.” The line connecting Rebecca Figueroa to Anna Hartley is actually a network, and it spreads across the globe.

Janey Starling, co-director of Level Up, concluded: “Prison will never, ever be a safe place to be pregnant. The trauma and toxic stress of the prison environment causes lasting harm to both mother and child. It’s time for the government to end the shameful imprisonment of pregnant women and new mothers, and make sure they are supported in the community instead.”

Why is that so difficult to understand? Ending the shackling of pregnant women, providing nurseries for them and their children, providing actual reproductive health care are all important, but in some sense, they only move us out of the negative. There is no reason to keep pregnant people incarcerated. Period. Prison will never, ever be a safe place to pregnant. Stop incarcerating pregnant women.

We must do more and we must do better than apologize.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Huck Magazine)

In the name of dignity, North Carolina is about to limit shackling pregnant incarcerated women!

Three years ago, March 26, 2018, the North Carolina Director of Prisons responded to SisterSong and other members of the Coalitions to End Shackling in North Carolina and officially ended the shackling of incarcerated women in childbirth. It was a momentous occasion and, in its way, a joyous and hopeful day. For the past three years, North Carolina legislators have tried to expand on that decision and now, finally, it seems they are ready to move forward. Yesterday, August 25, 2021, the Senate voted unanimously to approve a partial ban on pregnant women serving time in North Carolina prisons. The House had unanimously passed a similar bill in May, and now looks set to pass this bill, probably unanimously, and then pass it on to the Governor for signature. As Senator Natalie Murdock, Democrat from Durham, noted, “This is just transformational work. Folks have been in talks about this for years.”

While state prisons were already limited as to when a pregnant woman could be shackled and were banned altogether from shackling a woman in childbirth, the rules were both too vague and too often ignored or “left to the discretion” of staff. This bill codifies, in law, the rules. It limits shackling during the second and third trimesters, labor and delivery, for a six-week postpartum recovery period. If a staff member decides restraints are required, those restraints can only be wrist cuffs and that decision initiates a report to the warden, who then sends all the reports, on a determined regular basis, to the Department of Public Safety Leadership.

While the matter of staff compliance remains, as it always does, the transformational unanimity of the legislature suggests that, at least for the foreseeable future, there will be eyes on the prisons, at least in this matter. Additionally, by insisting on making explicit in law the appropriate treatment and care for women, the North Carolina legislature is demonstrating the conclusion recently reached by researchers of carceral pregnancy and childbirth: “Incarcerated pregnant people and their babies deserve better care that is codified in policy”.

Along with constraint limitations, the bill says newborn babies must remain with their mothers after delivery; mothers must be incarcerated within 250 miles of their babies until the children reach one year old; mothers must have two visits weekly with their children. Pregnant women must be allotted bottom bunks or beds no more than 3 feet off the floor. Guards can’t conduct body cavity searches on pregnant women.

At another time, the question of why it takes three years to arrive at a common sense, clear policy will be debated. For now, though, a celebration is in order. Yesterday’s Senate vote was a unanimous affirmation of the original House bill, House Bill 608, “An Act To Promote The Dignity Of Women Who Are Incarcerated.” Let us all celebrate the promotion of women’s dignity, everywhere, always. That would be just and transformational work.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Radical Doula)