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US: 'Mothers Behind Bars'

28th October 2010

The number of women in America's state prisons has reached a record high, yet many states have inadequate policies for dealing with the large portion of them who have children or are pregnant, according to a new report entitled 'Mothers Behind Bars'.

The report by the National Women's Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights analyses policies in three areas — prenatal care, shackling of pregnant women during childbirth and community-based alternatives to incarceration which enable mothers to be with their children.

Only one state, Pennsylvania, received an A.

"It's shameful that so many states fail to have laws and policies to protect this vulnerable population of unseen and largely forgotten women," said Jill Morrison, a co-author of the report and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center.

As a backdrop to its findings, the report noted the number of women in prison — more than 115,000 as of 2009 — has risen at a higher rate than that of men since the introduction of mandatory sentencing policies for many drug offences. It said most of the women are nonviolent, first-time offenders, and about two-thirds have at least one child under 18.

According to the report, pregnant women entering prison often have high-risk pregnancies, yet many states lack comprehensive policies to ensure they receive essential prenatal care. The report said a majority of states do not require medical examinations as a component of prenatal care, and do not offer pregnant women screening for HIV/AIDS. Many states have also failed to implement strict limits on the use of shackles or other restraints on mothers during childbirth.

Furthermore, the report also urged continued expansion of community-based alternative sentencing programs, including drug-treatment programs, for women who have children and were convicted of nonviolent offences. "These treatment programs permit mothers and children to heal together in community-based facilities and consistently show successful outcomes for children's health and stability," the report said.

Read more:

  • See the full report here
  • ABC news article on the treatment of mothers in state prisons
  • ABC news article on the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women
  • Read the stories of mothers shackled during childbirth
viewed here