Incarceration is “particularly harmful” to women, especially if they are mothers, and authorities should consider alternative approaches to punishment for them, a Texas justice advocacy group says.
“With a fraction of the money it costs to incarcerate a mother, we can support her with tools to address underlying needs, as well as keep her with her children and in the community – thus avoiding trauma and losses for the whole family unit,” maintained the Texas Center for Justice and Equityin a special file on “Maternity and pregnancy behind bars”.
The report, released this week, focused on what it said was unequal and often cruel treatment for mothers in Texas prisons and jails.
Despite passing several state laws aimed at improving conditions, Texas reflected the national failure to address the long-term generational damage caused by “locked-in motherhood,” the researchers wrote.
“When we incarcerate women – the majority of whom are mothers – not only do we fail them, but we fail our children and our communities,” the report said.
“We leave unaddressed the issues that push women into incarceration: poverty, educational inequities, trauma and mental health issues, (and) substance abuse.”
United States. imprisons about 30% of the world’s incarcerated female population, or about 215,000 women, while it only has 4% of the world’s female population, according to figures cited in the study.
Black and brown women are disproportionately represented in America’s prison and prison populations — about 23% — in effect “perpetuating ruthless cycles of incarceration that have a disproportionate impact on communities and generations of color,” according to the study.
Research has also shown that the incarceration rate for women in the United States is increasing at a faster rate than that for men.
Other research has shown that the main driver of higher incarceration rates for women is prosecution for non-violent drug charges, either for possession or trafficking. Proponents said ending the punitive approach fueled by the drug war would help reduce the prison population overall.
Pregnant behind bars
The researchers paid particular attention to the conditions faced by women incarcerated in Texas facilities who are pregnant and give birth in custody.
More than 8,700 women were behind bars in Texas in February 2022, and between 5 and 10 percent of them were pregnant when they entered prison, according to the study. Some 110 women gave birth in Texas detention facilities in 2020.
Once in detention, they were less likely to receive proper medical care for their pregnancy and were “more likely to have birth complications that lead to caesarean sections and to have babies born with low birth weight. birth,” according to the study.
Interviews with former detainees revealed that postpartum care was also inadequate; some mothers were separated from their infants as early as three days after delivery. Most have to deliver their newborns within hours or days.
Additionally, many facilities severely limit the physical access women have with their children during visits, including through “militarized patrols of visiting rooms, which can affect postpartum depression and bonding with their children.” “.
The lack of care also extends to mothers of young children. Visits are often limited to video screens.
“I just remember looking at that blurry screen and crying,” the daughter of an incarcerated woman recalled in an interview with researchers. “My mother was trying to console me, but she couldn’t even wipe the tears from my eyes.”
Researchers have learned that a woman in an unidentified prison in Texas was placed in solitary confinement after giving birth “for crying because her baby was taken from her in the hospital, while she was sent back to the ‘prison unit’.
The study noted that Texas lawmakers approved new legislation in 2018 and 2019 that required state prison officials to improve nutrition for pregnant women and expand access to school and job training and counseling. in mental health.
Another bill, passed in 2021, allowed formerly incarcerated women to seek restoration of their parental rights, ending a situation in which some mothers were permanently barred from access to their children due to the nature of their original offences.
But “confidential reports made by incarcerated women at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity show that the practice is often different from the policy.”
The study presented a set of recommendations, aimed at persuading authorities to ‘rethink’ the treatment of incarcerated women – above all to avoid incarceration altogether where possible.
Authorities should “take real and viable action to completely prevent women from being incarcerated – including by removing funding for harmful prison systems,” the study said.
- Require judges to consider whether a woman is the primary caregiver for a child and identify options for her to stay with her family rather than be incarcerated;
- Reallocate funds from the Texas corrections system to “community programs”;
- Offer mothers more time with their children in non-prison settings.
- Foster more “humane” prison conditions, including adequate food, water and climate controls.
These policy changes were essential not only to improve the conditions of individual women, but for the health of the community, according to the study.
“When a mother is locked up, it’s never just one person who suffers,” said Cynthia Simons, one of the study’s authors.
“The violence of incarceration reverberates through generations, whether through poor prenatal care for pregnant women behind bars, family separation soon after the birth of a baby, or the negative impact of trauma on children whose parents are incarcerated.”
Noting that statistics showed that two-thirds of incarcerated mothers were primary caregivers of young children, the authors said better treatment inside prison was crucial for the development and nurturing of young adults. in good health.
“Motherhood should be elevated and held in the highest esteem,” the study said. “For the sake of our children, our families and our communities, we need to stop locking it up.”
The lead authors of the study were Cynthia Simons and Chloe Craig.
Editor’s Note: The Texas Center for Justice & Equity was formerly known as the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Further reading: Care of pregnant women in prison does not meet federal guidelines, The Crime Report, February 25, 2021.
The full report can be accessible here.