In the newly-released ACLU-PA report, “Reproductive Health Locked Up,” there are numerous revelations as to just how unprepared Pennsylvania jails are to accommodate women’s reproductive health needs. Even more disappointing is how out of touch prison policymakers are with the practical realities of women’s encounters with the prison system.
According to the report, no county jails in Pennsylvania allow women to use contraceptives for the purpose of pregnancy prevention during incarceration. Over half of the prisons surveyed had no policy at all about contraception, and those that did only allowed inmates access to birth control for a medical purpose other than preventing pregnancy. The lack of support for women taking control of their reproductive health is unconscionable.
One might find it hard to imagine why an incarcerated woman would be concerned about the risk of pregnancy. This is the reality: the average jail stay for women is less than two weeks in length (pp. 22-23, “Reproductive Health Locked Up”). Then they’re out and back to their lives—but their pregnancy prevention plan has been disrupted. Repairing it might very well take a back seat to the litany of priorities to address after “getting out”—unresolved legal issues, compliance with parole, drug treatment, reconnecting with loved ones, finding a job.
Reducing unplanned pregnancy is a major public health concern across the country. For women who are already in contact with the criminal justice system, an unplanned pregnancy can be a significant destabilizing event, one that would make it even harder for them to “straighten out” and get back on the right track.
How’s this for radical thinking: find out if women are using contraception upon intake and continue their prescription for as long as they want it. The infrastructures to take medical histories and to dole out medication are already in place. Offer affordable contraceptive options to all women before release, along with a prescription for refills, just like they’d receive from a doctor. Treat an encounter with the prison system as an opportunity to broaden the health options of low-income women and to empower formerly incarcerated individuals to make every child a wanted child. This can only have positive outcomes for both mother and child, and for society at large.
Janna Frieman is an intern with the ACLU-PA’s Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project. She is pursuing a master’s in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.