Mother’s Day behind bars

By Michelle Chen May 05, 2009

Just in time for Mother’s Day, advocates for incarcerated women will make the case for reform to New York’s lawmakers this week. The Coalition for Women Prisoners, a network of advocacy and service organizations that monitors state prison conditions, is pushing for three bills to bring relief to women behind bars. One bill would help domestic violence survivors to seek “merit time” and early release if they could prove that their crime resulted directly from the abuse. State law currently makes virtually no exceptions for women who, after suffering years of psychological and physical trauma, committed a criminal act in self-defense. As a result of fighting back, many drift from the prison of a violent relationship into the custody of the state. Three in four incarcerated women suffered extreme physical abuse at the hands of a partner in adulthood, according to the Coalition, and even more experienced childhood sexual or physical abuse. Another proposed reform would give the state’s child welfare system more flexibility to when dealing with incarcerated parents. Federal mandates currently press foster care agencies to seek a termination of parental rights after a certain period of time in foster care. The policies purport to ensure stability for the child, but could end up destroying families with both a parent in prison and a child in state care. The legislation would grant family court judges and agencies more discretion to plan around special barriers posed by incarceration and work toward family reunification whenever possible. Lawmakers will also weigh a bill to establish stronger oversight over prison-based programs for HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. The two diseases strike women in New York prisons at about double the rate for incarcerated men. In their policy brief, the Coalition reports that incarcerated individuals routinely experience problems like "denials of and delays in access to care, inadequate examinations, delays in medical procedures and test results, and inadequate follow-up by prison providers to specialists’ recommendations.” The poor health conditions plaguing many prisoners could have deadly consequences for the communities to which most incarcerated people eventually return. About two thirds of women in New York State facilities are Black or Latina, and the vast majority were convicted for nonviolent offenses. The issues at stake here—people deprived of needed medical care, parents torn apart from children, and a lack of relief for brutalized women—might seem like problems that public safety policy is tasked with solving. But instead, remarkably, activists are heading to Albany on Tuesday to call out the government as one of the main perpetrators of these harms. Image: AP Photo / Kathy Willens