In the past 25 years, the number of women and girls caught up in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed. Many have been swept up in the War on Drugs and subject to punitive sentencing policies for nonviolent offenses.
In Pennsylvania, thousands of woman cycle through the county jail system every year. Unfortunately, the county prisons that house these women — 57 in total — have been slow to adapt to the changing demographics of their prisoners. As a result, the unique health care needs of women have been largely ignored, leaving the health of this vulnerable population at risk.
This week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project issued a new report, Reproductive Health Locked Up: An Examination of Pennsylvania Jail Policies, that exposes the failure of counties to put adequate health care policies in place. In many cases, current policies fail to address the most basic reproductive health services, such as pregnancy testing, prenatal care, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and access to abortion services.
Three-quarters of the women incarcerated in county jails are of reproductive age, and the majority are mothers and the sole caretakers of their children. Most are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, are undereducated, come from minority groups, and fall below the poverty line. Approximately 6 percent of all female inmates are pregnant upon admission to jail.
As the population of women in jail grows, counties will increasingly be vulnerable to lawsuits brought by prisoners whose medical treatment or lack of treatment has caused them harm or violated their constitutional rights. The public will be harmed as women laving jail re-enter the community with unaddressed health needs. And finally, we as a society are harmed when we squander the opportunity to help the most vulnerable among us.
Over the next few days, The ACLU of Pennsylvania will be posting a series of blog posts highlighting some of the findings of the report and what needs to be done to fix these problems.