Incarcerated Women's Health
Women are perhaps the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population in the United States today. However, according to Johns Hopkins OBGYN and researcher Carolyn Sufrin, not much data exists about their unique healthcare needs. This paucity is often reflected in a lack of policy, but the Maryland General Assembly recently passed two pieces of legislation that aim to help.
On the heels of statewide sanitary product drives for incarcerated women, one bill promotes greater access to free, quality hygiene supplies for those in state and local custody. This legislation, according to Women’s Justice Consortium activist Kimberly Haven, is “just good public policy.”
The other bill mandates the creation of policies regarding women’s health by all state and regional carceral institutions. Screenings and pregnancy services are included in the legislation, which aims to prevent what Haven refers to as “ad hoc decision making.”
Sufrin, who is currently compiling national information on women’s healthcare needs, along with statistics on pregnancy, birth and motherhood in jails and prisons, says she believes policies are often lacking because incarcerated people are out of sight. Additionally, she says, incarcerated women’s needs, specifically, are usually not at the forefront of people’s minds, which leads to what she calls “overall neglect.” She says legislation is an “important first step,” but that advocating for national standards, and ensuring proper enforcement and oversight, should also be priorities.
Haven and Sufrin both emphasize the “ripple effect” that treatment in state facilities can have on families and communities when women come home. Haven also says she hopes more work can be done around pre-release and re-entry needs for women, and that the expertise of formerly incarcerated advocates can become more broadly recognized.