A recent report from the Philadelphia Women’s Commission shows that as of July 2018, there were 453 women held in custody of the Philadelphia Prison Department. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that nationwide, women are the fastest-growing prison population, with the majority of female prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent offenses with an overwhelming number of them victims of sexual assault and the majority of them primary caregivers for young children. In addition, the criminal justice and prison systems, which have historically serviced a majority male population, lack many of the policies and resources that address the unique needs of female bodied prisoners.
As a legislator, I believe that it is essential for us to hold the systems that service these populations accountable for addressing distinctive needs — a benefit that impacts rehabilitation and development and which contributes to overall safer communities.
Two of the first issues that I came across concerning dignity for incarcerated women related to the inhumane shackling of women in labor and lack of access to feminine hygiene products. These two issues brought to light both the smaller and larger particular needs of incarcerated women. My role as a commissioner on the Philadelphia Commission for Women, which works to improve the lives of Philadelphia’s women, girls, and individuals who identify as female, positioned me to delve deeper into the conversation.
As daunting as the statistics are, it is the stories that some of the previously and currently incarcerated women tell that might haunt you. Ones like that of Mary Baxter who endured 43 hours of labor, shackled to a hospital bed, before she gave birth to her son by emergency C-section. After delivery, she was then placed in solitary confinement because the facility in which she was housed had nowhere else to place someone in her “condition.”
Across the country, states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Kentucky are stepping up to the plate to ensure female prisoners have access to the resources they need while incarcerated and upon release. It’s evident that legislators are taking responsibility to, one, give these populations the dignity they deserve as people, and two, to contribute to their growth and success upon reentry. Both points backed by evidence that shows the positive impact this access has on recidivism rates, crime rates, and least expectantly, the development and success of our next generation.
Following the path that has been set, fueled by organizations like #cut50 and local advocates like Tonie Willis, here in Pennsylvania, a team of my colleagues and I banded together in response to the escalating incarceration of women and girls. In just days we are introducing a package of bills, Dignity for Incarcerated Women, to address issues unique to the female incarcerated population as well as issues that impact all incarcerated people. The issues addressed by the package include the unique needs of primary caregivers, the needs of pregnant incarcerated women, and accountability measures for the institutions and systems that work with these vulnerable populations.
The series of proposed bills are backed by research that shows that people who are incarcerated have a better success rate when they are able to build and maintain the most meaningful relationships in their lives and when they are connected to resources that make a difference. We need to ensure that our incarcerated populations are able to maintain their basic rights as people and remain connected to the things that matter most.
State Rep. Morgan B. Cephas serves the 192nd District of Philadelphia.