The Important Conversation We’re Not Having About Women in Prison

The Important Conversation We’re Not Having About Women in Prison

When we think of people who are in prisons, the conversation often goes two ways.

We either talk about the many ways and reasons why they are in prison (and why some believe they should stay in prison), or we discuss the increasing, alarming rates of mass incarceration in the United States. Some go as far as to liken prison life to the fictional portrayal of Piper Kerman’s life on the hit show Orange is the New Black, loosely based off her bestselling memoir of the same name.

What some tend to forget are the not-so-little details of living in prison, such as a woman’s reproductive health experience while incarcerated. Adequate medical treatment is not only hard to come by, but when it is available could be demeaning to the patient.

An opinion from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that a disproportionate number of women come into prison with health issues, and approximately 6-10% of incarcerated women are pregnant. It can be difficult to meet basic health care needs—from yearly checkups to preventative care (like breast cancer screenings)—because in many prisons doctors or gynecologists may only be available for emergencies.

While some states mandate that women in prison be given women-specific treatments such as pap smears and other cancer screenings, the amount of time that it takes for them to get the results or undergo treatment is substantial. In some cases, medical staffs even fail to explain to inmates what is happening with their bodies, or what the treatment they will be receiving is.

What is even more shocking is the amount of women who are subject to sexual harassment or non-consensual medical practices during their stay in prison. In 2013, the Center of Investigative Reporting released a report stating that between 2006 and 2010, nearly 150 female inmates had been sterilized without state approval. Former staff and residents of the prisons that administered these procedures say that doctors would coerce those they believed were most likely to return to prison. Many of those they would ask for “consent” to sterilize were in labor at the time, making it questionable if they were genuinely willing to consent to it.

At the same time, all of this information comes with an odd twist: some homeless or low-income folks knowingly commit crimes that will land them in prison in order to gain access to shelter or health care. An article from the U.K.’s The Guardian in 2010 states that approximately 20% of homeless people commit crimes with shelter and health care in mind. These high rates (and the prediction that they will continue to grow) circle back to a sad reality that the cost of living and thriving in the world is rising faster than people can afford to keep up with.

To find out more about the status of reproductive health in prisons throughout the country, visit the American Civil Liberties Union’s map for state standards.