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Women in Prison- Healthcare and Childbirth

posted by Women Undefined
Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 7:15pm CDT

Writing regarding current women's issues, sports analysis and commentary, with a dash of political posturing!

Pop culture observers have seen the semi-popular movie Changeling featuring world mega-star Angelina Jolie and directed by world mega-icon Clint Eastwood. The plot of the film chronicles the true life story of a woman who’s son was kidnapped and replaced by a random boy in order to make the corrupt police department look as if they had indeed found the woman's son. The movie ends with a triumphant court case, during which Jolie’s character convinces the city that the boy placed in her home was not indeed her son. Tragically, the whereabouts of that woman’s son are still unknown.

The reason mention this is that during the course of the movie, Jolie’s character becomes so adamant that the boy in her home is not indeed her rescued son, she is committed to prison for psychosis and assaulting a police officer; she is later placed into a  psych ward, where she was subjected to an immeasurable amount of cruelty. The conversations her character had with several other inmates became one of the most fascinating parts of the film, and Eastwood’s penchant for creating historically accurate scenes make no exception in Changeling.

For when Jolie’s character is admitted to prison , she’s photographed and brutally escorted from guard to guard, each shoving pills down her throat , conducting a body-cavity search, and sending her to the showers, where she is sprayed head to toe with a hose shooting water with what seems the force of a fire hose. The shower unit is not a private cell or enclosed area, rather a communal area with no shower heads and one drain. Jolie’s character suffered immensely from the inhumane treatment, something I was touched deeply by.

Sadly, the conditions Jolie’s character endured are essentially identical to those of incarcerated women today. In 2010, Women are treated in prison in very much the same way as  1928.

Today, there are more than a million women incarcerated in state and federal prison or under criminal justice supervision. (WPA) What this means is that out of the millions of state and federal prisons, women represent 23% of the total prison population. Women are incarcerated for a variety of reasons, but data shows that between 2003 and 2007, women incarcerated for drug crimes has risen 29% , as compared to men who are at a 15% increase. (WPA)

Overall, 28% of women in state prison in 2005 were put there for drug offenses. 28% of women are incarcerated for property crime, and together the two offences make up 2/3 of the population of women in prison. ( WPA) Also to be noted, 35% of women in prison are there for violent offenses or convicted of violent offenses. Yet, the most important fact of all of these findings , is that indeed a full 2/3 of the convicted offenders are non-violent.

There are a variety of reason why the population of women has risen in the past 10 years, however a strong argument can be made regarding the increase in privatization of prisons and uptick of stringent drug and property laws. It is known however, that since 1977, the female population in prisons both state and federal, have skyrocketed by over 800%. Yet, the male population only (and I mean that with respect to the female rate) rose by a little over 400% . (Amnesty International)

Today, with the increased amount of female prisoners, the prevalence of privatized prisons and the stringent drug and property laws, women are still denied the progressive rights instituted in prisons that have been enacted for and geared towards men. For instance, the affects of absent, incarcerated, men on their children and families have been researched extensively ; actions or laws by state and federal authorities have been instituted in order to benefit those suffering from the loss of their fathers. Furthermore, there has been a recent push in Europe and (a bit) in America for better and more humane health care for prisoners. These progressive actions have helped men more so than women. (Watterson) There have been studies on HIV and AIDS in male prison populations, counseling services, educational resources and drug rehab resources (one of the most important policies) in order to help prisoners re-enter society ready to contribute to society and provide for their families- yet many of these same services are denied to most female inmates.

Unfortunately, much as in mainstream, Western Society, the progressive policies designed to help male prisoners have not been afforded to women on the same scale. Women receive sub-par health care and women giving birth in prisons are often shackled while doing so , for fear they are “faking” birth in order to escape.

Women do not have access to drug treatment to the extent that men do within the prison system. In fact, some have suggested that treating drug addiction among incarcerated women is not a priority, and there are less funds available to female inmates to develop and enact drug treatment programs- thus inhibiting them further from re-entering society as productive citizens.

Finally, incarcerated men and women at the current rate cost tax payers and the federal government billions, therefor the programs designed to help men reenter mainstream society are given predominantly to men, and withheld from women.

The story I began my paper with, about Angelina Jolie’s character being hosed down, is not an exaggeration. In a 1996 book by Kathryn Watterson, a young woman prisoner is followed during that prisoner’s intake and the horror that took place shocked me. Watterson describes a scene not too different from the one I decribed above. A young female prisoner, incarcerated for a drug offense, was brutally handled , dragged to the cubicle where her intake picture was taken and questionnaire portion was conducted; to a shower area where she was put into a communal showering area and rinsed off (without a hose) with cold water. Afterward, a guard roughly conducted the cavity search and then another guard shoved a pill down her throat , without telling her what it was or how it would affect her.

In fact, the pill that was brutally shoved down her throat made her sick and she suffered terrible side effects for days. The author, Watterson, decided to ask around to figure out what exactly the pill was and after several nurses and guards dodged her questions, she finally found the pill to be one of the most harsh antibiotics around, used in these women to kill any and all vaginal or other internal infections.

When I asked the nurse why all the women arriving at Marysville were given shuck strong drug whether or not they had an infection, she said, ‘So many of the girls have trich when they come in that we automatically give it to all the girls rather than wait until all the slides and cultures come in. It does get rid of the organism. It would take a week before we got the slides and cultures back, and this is much easier, since the majority of them have it anyway. (Watterson)


Pap smears, a prevention procedure used to detect abnormal cells and other abnormalities inside the vagina and on the cervix are not given to women in prisons regularly. One nurse said, during Watterson’s tour , “we don’t do Pap smears unless it is indicated”, meaning that if there is something abnormal noticed during the guards rough, vaginal/anal cavity search , they will order a Pap, otherwise , no Pap smear. The reason for this is not complicated, the cost to provide a Pap smear up front to all prisoners is expensive, even if it could prevent further , more costly procedures. Quite simply, in order to save money, the prison system doesn’t want the upfront cost on their books.

Although the living conditions in women’s prisons have greatly improved since the 1920’s and a revolt in 1970’s, the jails women are housed in are still very sub standard. Watterson notes that because the majority of women entering prisons are suffering from drug addiction, or are malnourished, or are suffering from a degenerative disease (such as HIV/AIDS); the bad conditions of the jails lead to an increased susceptibility of these women to contract life-threatening illnesses. (Watterson) The subpar medical treatment certainly does nothing to address these realities. Yet there are hardly substantial healthcare policies , in house clinics, or protections that can relieve the health problems and deal with symptoms of female prisoners. (Price, S)

Regarding healthcare, in general people still do not consider pregnancy and birth as “healthcare”, rather a necessary , private occurrence that inevitably has more to do with what happens in the “home”(a place dominated still by men , who is still regarded as the head of the household) than public. It is a major part of the public/private split, childbirth is private and thus not fully recognized as healthcare. So what happens to women who are pregnant when entering prison?

A recent article at the popular website RealityCheck.org offers a heart breaking story of one woman who was forced to give birth while incarcerated while in shackles. Shawanna was in jail for passing bad checks, however she was six months pregnant and the time to deliver came during her time in jail. During the birth, both her feet were shackled on either side of the delivery table, as were her arms; and a shackle was placed across her distended , contracting and very sensitive belly. Only when the doctor’s protested vehemently were the leg and belly shackles removed while she delivered her son, but the arm shackles remained.

Immediately after Shawanna gave birth to her son, the shackles were replaced. According to the article, the mental anguish and suffering of Shawanna has been ongoing, furthermore, she suffered severe complication due to the traumatic birth and had to obtain surgery later to fix symptoms of the rough birth. (Clark, A.)

Giving birth is not easy. It is painful and there are often complications, so there is no doubt that Shawanna’s incarceration and shackling could not have been the sole reason for her mental and physical postpartum complications. But the birth was certainly more difficult than necessary, and that could have been avoided. One researcher in Britain concluded that the simple presence of a pregnancy support person, apart from the accompanying guard, can work to relieve the stress of pregnancy for anyone, but especially a prisoner. (Marshall, D) The study also found that increased access to pre-pregnancy planning, health care services (such as regular check ups that are regularly denied to incarcerated women) and birthing support can have lasting, positive , affects upon the incarcerated woman and can lead to a healthier, and less costly, recovery. (Marshall, D)

Yet, due to funding of state and federal correctional institutions, there are not often full health clinics/services available at prisons. The movements beginning in the UK and other European countries to provide support to women giving birth in prison have yet to reach America. Currently, there are no prisons with full birthing centers and maternity wards. Therefore, a transfer to the hospital in order that a pregnant inmate give birth is necessary, and that is why prison superintendents argue that women be shackled because men are shackled when taken to have medical services , and men and women have to be treated equally. (Watterson) . But shackling during the act of giving birth is cruel punishment and is likened by many who oppose it, to torture. (Price, S)

The healthcare gap in quality of healthcare services, including childbirth, is due to the inherent patriarchal structure of the prison system, which disallows access to equal health care-related treatment of women because women are still considered a minority. (Price,S) Simply, women do not have access to funding to create birthing centers, support, or pre and postpartum care , that male prisons seem to have -causing lasting mental and physical and mental affects on female inmates.(Price,S)

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Watterson, Kathryn: Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb - Northeaster Unicersity Press.1996

Clark, Anna: Giving Birth in Chains

Price, Sally : Maternity Services for Women in Prison: A Descriptive Study British Journal of Midwifery, June 2005, Vol 13, 6

Marshall, Denise: Birth Companions : Working with Women in Prison Giving Birth : British journal of midwifery, April 2010 , Vol. 18 , 4



Women Prison Association: Fact Sheet 

View Original Post at womenundefined.com


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