April 11, 2019
On behalf of the R Street Institute, we write to you in strong support of the Dignity Act (HB 345) introduced by Representative Sharon Cooper and passed by an overwhelming majority in the Georgia State Legislature (52-1 in the Senate and unanimously, 152-0, in the House). This landmark legislation begins to restore dignity to—and acknowledge the humanity of—women behind bars in Georgia.
At the R Street Institute, our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government. When pregnant and postpartum women behind bars are not treated with dignity and their health is put at risk, government oversteps its bounds and violates these principles. Thus, HB 345 is of special importance to us.
Under Governor Deal’s tenure, Georgia emerged as a leader in smart criminal justice reform practices. Consequently, Georgia’s taxpayers have enjoyed better public safety outcomes at a reduced cost while keeping families together. The model set by the state of Georgia has been so effective that Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. modeled parts of last year’s landmark criminal justice legislation, the First Step Act, on Georgia’s reforms. We strongly encourage you to continue this trend with the enactment of smart and effective criminal justice reforms, and to further Georgia’s leadership in this arena by focusing on the plight of incarcerated women, the fastest-growing prison population in the nation.
Over the past thirty years, the population of women behind bars in the United States has skyrocketed—quadrupling since 1980. Women are now the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. We incarcerate more than 111,500 women in state and federal prison facilities, a total that exceeds one-third of the global female prison population. Furthermore, 75-85 percent of those women are mothers, and more than 2,000 women give birth behind bars every year.
Incarceration often has far-reaching consequences that extend beyond its impact on individuals. This is especially true for women, who are instrumental in preserving the integrity of families and the vitality of communities. The stories shared by formerly incarcerated women who have endured subhuman treatment in our prisons underscore the need for policies that deliver basic human rights in Georgia. There has never been a more important time for us to build understanding, generate empathy and enact policies that protect all women in Georgia.
The unique gift of a woman to be a mother also necessitates appropriate conditions to safely give birth to a healthy newborn. When shackled, women are not able to reposition themselves to alleviate the pain associated with contractions and childbirth. Wrist and ankle restraints cause bruising and wounds that compound the trauma of childbirth. The positioning of wrist and ankle restraints force a delivering woman into an unnatural position that harms her fetus, impeding the natural flow of oxygen as the newborn enters the world. If an emergency procedure, such as a cesarean section, becomes necessary, a delay of as little as the five minutes it takes to reposition shackles can cause permanent brain damage to the fetus. Finally, restraints may prevent a mother from effectively healing from childbirth, breastfeeding and bonding with her newborn.
Medical professional groups—who are experienced in the delivery of newborns—have spoken out against the practice of shackling, including: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; the American Medical Association; the American Public Health Association; the American College of Nurse-Midwives; and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses. Individual medical practitioners have stated that the purported purpose of the shackles—flight risk or harm by women in prison—is a relatively minor concern, especially for those who have committed nonviolent, low-level offenses.
For the reasons stated above, the R Street Institute strongly supports HB 345 and urges you to sign it into law.
Director, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties
R Street Institute
Director, State Government Affairs
R Street Institute