Incarcerated Women and Health Care

In the United States, women are the fastest growing group of incarcerated persons. The majority of these women are: serving time for nonviolent crimes, from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds, undereducated, and fall below the federal poverty line. In Pennsylvania, there were 5,014 female inmates in state correctional facilities in April 2014; there are an additional 4,558 women housed in county jails on any given day (County Jail Population) Estimates of the number of women who spend some time incarcerated in Pennsylvania are as high as 40,000 per year. The ACLU of Pennsylvania uses a variety of advocacy tools to enhance health services for incarcerated women and has developed resources aimed at improving reproductive health services for women and girls who are behind bars.

Our newest resource is publication that examines issues facing incarcerated women who are pregnant or parenting. It provides critical information for women to help guide their decisions about a pregnancy, appointing caregivers for their children, or making custody arrangements and a host of other resources.

The Duvall Project began focusing on women in prison by joining the effort to ban the use of shackles and other restraints for pregnant women. Galvanized by a news story by the BBC and other media coverage, including editorials from around the state, the bill passed both houses unanimously and Governor Rendell signed the bill July 2, 2010. Recent research has shown that implementation of the law is uneven. This has led us to call upon the Pennsylvania Attorney General to educate those involved with the care of incarcerated women to come into full compliance with the law.

Though incarcerated women are supposed to receive a basic level of health care while incarcerated, their reproductive health needs are often neglected. Women in prison have difficulty obtaining comprehensive prenatal care, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and access to abortion. A groundbreaking report by the Clara Bell Duvall Project published in 2012 outlines the current state of affairs and makes detailed policy suggestions.