Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

How many pregnant women are in prison, anyway?

January 28, 2011 - 01:30 PM
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Shackles (Photo: Associated Press)

Virginia is considering a statewide ban on shackling women during childbirth. Just how many women could be affected by that policy, anyway?

Plenty. A 2006 report in the American Journal of Public Health pins the national arrest rate at 3.2 million women annually, and estimates that at any point, between 6 and 10 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant. In 1998 alone, 1,400 women gave birth while incarcerated in the United States.

I couldn't unearth any state-specific data for Virginia. But the Virginia Department of Corrections incarcerates thousands of women every year. The Virginia DOC oversees four facilities specifically for women: The Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, with a daily population of 1,199; the Brunswick Work Center, population 708; the Central Virginia Correctional Unit #13, population 250; and the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, population 572. That's nearly 3,000 women housed in Virginia prisons alone, not counting women held in local jails and other detainment facilities in the state. At any given time, hundreds of incarcerated pregnant women in the Virginia lack protections against being locked up when they deliver their children, a practice that puts both mother and child at risk. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Corrections simultaneously denies shackling pregnant women and refuses to support laws that would officially ban the practice.

Thinking it's not worth it to attempt to give birth while behind bars? Good luck: "Women locked up in all federal and most state prisons and jails are denied funding for abortion care," the report reads. "They must procure the money themselves and travel to an offsite location for the procedure. In addition to the cost of the actual procedure, a woman may also have to pay her escorting guards’ wages and transportation expenses. A woman in prison may have to struggle just to persuade the guards to let her see a doctor and get the abortion care she needs. Some prisoners are refused an abortion until they have received a court order, which causes major delays that risk the health of the woman."

And remember: These policies are in effect in a nationwide prison system that reports stunning numbers of sexual assaults against inmates. The Fluvanna Correctional Center is one of the nation's worst offenders.

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