In the shadow of yet another lawsuit regarding the unlawful shackling of an incarcerated pregnant woman, New York has an opportunity to pass legislation that addresses the abysmal state of health care in women’s prisons.

The number of women in prison has grown astronomically relative to the number of men. However, because of the sheer quantity of men locked up, men’s issues continue to dominate the policy debate. Lawmakers need to recognize that women face specific threats to their health while incarcerated, and that these struggles continue after they’re released.

A woman’s path to prison is often peppered with abuse. Social work professor and author Katherine Van Wormer, in “Working with Female Offenders: A Gender-Sensitive Approach,” writes that the average female prisoner “is generally young, unmarried, involved in unhealthy sexual relationships. … She has had a tough upbringing characterized by physical and sexual abuse; such victimization has continued in adulthood in the form of rape and battering.”

Sadly, up to 98 percent of incarcerated women have experienced this sort of trauma in their lives. Trauma can often lead to depression, which in turn can lead to drug use and unhealthy relationships.

Histories of physical abuse and drug use often mean that formerly incarcerated women have been living in environments with a heightened risk for sexually transmitted infections. Yet due to the prevalence of STIs in women’s prisons, these women are often forced to address significant health care issues with little to no assistance.

Another health care issue that affects incarcerated women is pregnancy. For all soon-to-be parents, birthing decisions can become all-consuming, but for women in prison, even basic access to critical services can be fraught with issues. Shackling an incarcerated woman during labor is illegal in New York, but for those women who are incarcerated during pregnancy, prenatal health is often overlooked entirely.

Fortunately, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, and others are working to tackle many of the health care issues faced by incarcerated women. Assembly Bill No. A00118 takes steps to enable prisons to address the aftereffects of drug use, to offer STI testing, to provide better prenatal care and pregnancy support, and to establish a program to teach classes in women’s health.

Passing legislation like this will help women confront health challenges while incarcerated, and will lessen their struggle to find continuing care after release.

Image credit: kittirat roekburi

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