Imagine giving birth. Lower back searing with pain; muscles internally twisting and seizing with each contraction; hips feel like they’re being slowly dislocated; body rocking to distract from the pain.
Now imagine all of this but in a prison cell, with metal shackles cutting into your body and questionable medical care that may heighten, rather than calm, your anxiety. For many, the word “torture” comes to mind and, for many, it would be unthinkable that this type of treatment is occurring in Connecticut — but it is.
Some of the 936 women at York Correctional Facility in East Lyme, the state’s only correctional facility for women, have told me and others stories of such treatment.
In response to these inhumane conditions, Gov. Dannel Malloy has introduced Senate Bill 13, An Act Concerning the Fair Treatment of Incarcerated Women. First and foremost, this bill would prohibit restraints and shackling on incarcerated women during labor and delivery, thereby reducing the danger of falls and other bodily injuries and enabling medical professionals to provide necessary interventions.
Prison system officials argue that such provisions already exist within current guidelines, however, the definitive legal prohibition that this bill outlines will codify such provisions and provide clear enforcement mechanisms.
Many women in Connecticut’s prison are survivors of gender-based and sexual violence and may also be battling mental health and substance abuse issues. For anyone, pregnancy is mentally, emotionally, and physically arduous. So, providing services to ensure a healthy pregnancy, delivery, and birth will help limit the trauma that many of these women have already endured.
As a Yale School of Public Health student and member of the Connecticut Public Health Association (CPHA) Advocacy Committee, there are additional parts of SB 13 that I believe are integral to improving the physical and psychological health of both the women giving birth and her baby.
Only 54 percent of pregnant women in state prisons have received instruction on childcare, special testing (i.e. ultrasounds and maternal blood tests), diet, and other relevant reproductive health information. SB 13 will provide people who are pregnant with maternity resources like prenatal and postpartum services as well as education on prenatal nutrition, high-risk pregnancies, and addiction and substance use during pregnancy and childbirth.
SB 13’s services also include a lactation policy, providing mothers opportunity to pump and store breast milk to help their babies fight off viruses and bacteria and lower their risk of allergies and asthma later on in life.
The bill also addresses the long-term well-being of mothers and children. More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. That is 1 in 28 children. SB 13 takes necessary first steps toward improving the parent-child relationship by establishing visitation policies for mothers with children 18 and under that include physical contact and increased frequency of visits and access to child-friendly visiting areas. Helping to preserve and strengthen positive connections between a parent and child can reduce recidivism and intergenerational criminalization as well as promote healthy emotional and cognitive development of the child. The majority of incarcerated people in Connecticut are African American, so SB 13 could help in addressing part of the systemic inequity that may manifest in this population’s children.
In addition to SB 13’s pregnancy health and family-centric services, the bill would require that menstrual products to be provided free of charge. Currently, women are denied regular access to menstrual products and are forced to purchase it using their wages. US prisoners, make an average of 14 cents to $1.41 an hour, depending on the type of job. This financial barrier is a strong deterrent from accessing hygiene products and women who cannot afford them may substitute with whatever they can find, from toilet paper to dirty socks, these materials are inadequate and increase a person’s risk of infection.
While a strong start, more should be done. SB 13 should be amended to re-establish special maternal units, allowing inmate mothers to bond with their child for their first 18 months of life, promoting secure attachment between mother and child. Further, all incarcerated women need to be provided with a copy of the “Pregnant Women’s Bill of Rights” upon incarceration, to allow them to voice their health rights.
Ultimately, SB 13 will promote the health and preserve the human rights of incarcerated women, mothers, and their children. Currently, SB 13 has been passed out of Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly, which means it still has to be approved by House and Senate and signed by the Governor. So, it is urgent that people in Connecticut contact their legislators urging support of SB 13 because no one should have to give birth shackled.
Ashley Andreou is a master of public health student at the Yale School of Public Health.