Hearing about Prison Pregnancies on the Hill

Part of my internship experience at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland allowed me to accompany Reproductive Justice Inside (RJI) Coalition Coordinator Kim Haven to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 for a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary about the unfulfilled needs of incarcerated women. Chaired by Delegate Karen Bass (D-CA), the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security heard testimonies from women previously held in federal prisons, as well as several experts, on how the federal prison system could be reformed to meet the needs of its inmates.

Deputy Director of the ACLU, Jesselyn McCurdy, who had previously served on the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, gave the first testimony of the morning. McCurdy spoke in statistics, telling the committee about how women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population, and how the War on Drugs had swept many innocent women into federal prisons. In many cases, McCurdy said, prosecutors targeted drug dealers’ partners in an attempt to gain leverage over the dealer. The assumption was that the dealer, typically a man, would sacrifice himself to save his partner from incarceration. But what often happened was that the dealer, who had valuable information about drug distribution networks, would cooperate with prosecutors in order to receive a lighter sentence and abandon his partner. His partner, typically a woman who had little involvement in the distribution of drugs and who therefore had little information to trace with prosecutors, would then receive a harsher sentence than the dealer himself. Women became collateral damage from the War of Drugs.

Cynthia “Cindy” Shank, the second to testify, experienced this injustice firsthand. In 2002, Shank was living with an abusive boyfriend, locked in the house, and isolated from anyone who could help. When her boyfriend was murdered that year, police searched the house and found over 40 pounds of cocaine. The police had questioned her but decided not to pursue the case. Five years later, Shank had rebuilt her life. She was married, had two young children, and was pregnant with a third. Then the police knocked on her door. By 2008, she was convicted on four drug charges and given the federal, mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison despite not having been involved in any distribution of drugs. Shank’s incarceration destroyed the life she had built and heavily impacted her family. She was moved from her home in Michigan to a federal prison in Florida, where her children could visit only once a year due to the distance. Phone calls home were expensive and limited. Her husband divorced her, though he stayed in touch because of the children. Shank was granted clemency 9 years into her sentence by former President Barack Obama, but the damage was done. Even today, Shank and her children remain traumatized by her incarceration.

Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir that inspired the TV-series Orange Is the New Black, also testified on Tuesday about her experience in a federal women’s prison. Kerman recounted how women in federal facilities are treated without dignity, and how they often lack adequate reproductive healthcare. At one point during the hearing, a video clip from Orange Is the New Black was played. The clip shows a woman in a wheelchair being transported back into prison after giving birth at a hospital, but there is no baby in her arms. The other women in the facility go silent with pity as she passes. One takes the wheelchair from the correctional officers and rubs her shoulder. They understand her pain — she was forced by the prison system to surrender her child the morning after giving birth. Kerman witnessed this exact scene play out during her time in prison.

And these are not the only injustices that came to the committee’s attention on Tuesday. In addition to McCurdy, Shank, and Kerman, Patrice Lee Owuka, a senior analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum, and Aleks Kajtsura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, also testified. Kajtsura told the story of a woman who had gone into labor and told the correctional officers only to be dismissed and moved into a separate cell. She labored for 12 hours until she finally gave birth alone, squatting on the concrete floor. Medical care was provided only after the child was born. In addition, a member of the committee read a statement from Charlotte Cook, a member of the Reproductive Justice Inside coalition who was denied prenatal care while in prison. As a result, her child was born with several birth defects.

These stories are more than stories. They are evidence of the failure of federal prison facilities to treat women with dignity and to respect their human rights — to healthcare, to dignity, to family. And now that the evidence has been revealed, it cannot be denied. This is the power of a story, of a statement, of a testimony. Tuesday’s hearing established that the federal incarceration system fails to meet the specialized needs of women prisoners, and that reforming the incarceration system in general is not enough. We must implement changes specifically to improve the experience of incarcerated women in order to ensure that justice is restored.

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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