Monthly Archives: November 2010

March on Allegheny County Jail Tomorrow for Amy Lynn Gillespie

Amy Lynn Gillespie, 27, died on January 13, 2010. Ms. Gillespie was incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail and at the time of her death, was 18 weeks pregnant. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that she was in jail for “violating the terms of her work release by becoming pregnant.” At the end of December, she complained to jail officials of difficulty breathing and discharge from her lungs. According to a complaint filed in federal court last week, she was denied diagnostic tests and treated for viral influenza. But her condition worsened and she was taken to UPMC Mercy hospital on January 1, where she was diagnosed with bacterial influenza. The infection was too advanced to be treated with antibiotics and she died 12 days later.

Her family is now suing the Allegheny County Jail in U.S. District Court.

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, said that Ms. Gillespie’s treatment was “clearly a reproductive injustice, and it’s a human rights violation.” Tomorrow, NVP is organizing a march to the Allegheny County Jail to speak out in honor of Ms. Gillespie. It begins at noon at Fifth Avenue and Grant Street. You can find more details about the march here.

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Filed under Government, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Women in prisons, Women's health

Pennsylvania is Making Improvements for Incarcerated Moms, But Much More Needs to Be Done

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently published an article praising Pennsylvania’s number one status among state prison systems with regard to treatment of pregnant inmates. Post-Gazette reporter Tracie Mauriello cites examples from a study titled “Mothers Behind Bars” (PDF) conducted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. According to the study, Pennsylvania received an overall grade of A-, the highest of all 50 states.

In addition to the overall grade each state receives, the study provides letter grades for following policy areas: prenatal care, shackling of pregnant inmates, family-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and prison nurseries.

The study has good intentions and we’re glad that NWLC and the Rebecca Project worked on this issue, but it ultimately falls short because it relies solely on legislation and does not include any empirical evidence that any of the policies in question are actually working effectively. The study’s executive summary addresses this obstacle:

Ultimately, our goal is to encourage federal and state governments to reevaluate policies that fail to protect the interests of this growing at-risk population and adopt policies that recognize the needs of incarcerated pregnant women and mothers, as well as their children. But we also know that good laws and policies are not enough. Just as critical is whether state and federal institutions actually comply with what is required and whether they punish and correct violations. Just because a state has a high grade in any particular area does not mean that the pregnant and parenting women in that state are benefiting from the good policy.

It’s confusing to simultaneously grade a state’s policies and say that the grades may not mean anything, which is why the Post-Gazette’s article calling the PA prison system “the best in the nation when it comes to treatment of pregnant inmates” is misleading. Many states received low grades (six F+ grades is pretty awful), but without testimony from those who are subject to these policies, it’s too early to claim that the state is doing everything it can for incarcerated mothers.

Ann Schwartzman, the Policy Director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, discusses the study’s shortcomings in a letter to the editor criticizing the Post-Gazette article. Schwartzman points out that Pennsylvania is indeed putting forth effort to improve conditions with the recent shackling ban and a committee to review children’s needs that will convene in June 2011. She goes on to say:

Meanwhile, the number of women in prison over the last 25 years has increased by 400 percent, and roughly 75 percent are mothers of young children. Many need drug/alcohol treatment but programs are lacking. Health care including mental health and trauma-focused treatment for violence and abuse would address many issues of incarcerated moms, but the treatment available is limited. More community-based alternatives for women, who are mainly nonviolent, first-time offenders, are needed to keep families intact. Such programs are vital to successful re-entry.

We agree with Ms. Schwartzman, and we think talking to women who have been in jail or have been released and can share their first-hand experiences should be a crucial part of measuring how effective these policies are. Okay, Pennsylvania, you can pat yourself on the back for a minute and be proud of the steps being taken to improve the lives of incarcerated mothers, but do not let this praise in any way halt efforts to reform the prison system. It’s more important that the problems still occurring are worked on and solved, rather than focusing on where Pennsylvania stands compared to other states – especially since, upon further inspection, being number one in this study doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment.

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Filed under Government, Pennsylvania

Want to Take a Law School Course on Reproductive Rights? Might Be Hard to Find…

Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) has completed its seven-year survey [PDF] of reproductive rights-related course offerings and instructor-led reading groups at the nation’s 197 law schools. The results are troubling for women’s health advocates:

  • Only 18% of responding law schools offered even a single reproductive rights law and justice course between 2003 and 2010.
  • Only thirty-two schools in 17 states offer reproductive rights courses.
  • Only three Pennsylvania law schools—University of Pittsburgh School of Law (taught by WLP Senior Staff Attorney Susan Frietsche), Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University, and University of Pennsylvania Law School—offer reproductive rights courses.

There is reason to hope that this picture is changing.  Significantly, 13 courses—over one-third of the total—were initiated in response to advocacy on the part of LSRJ students.

The power to defend our freedom begins with the ability to understand and value it.  We applaud those law schools that already offer coursework in this complex, fascinating, and evolving field of law, and congratulate LSRJ on their effective advocacy.  If your law school does not offer a reproductive rights course, the answer could lie in simply organizing and asking for it.

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Filed under Abortion, Education, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Debunking the Myth of the “Welfare Queen”: Who Actually Receives TANF Benefits?

In February of this year, a blogger wrote about their experience observing an 11th grade classroom. The post discusses a student performing a poem that mocks a poor woman who encourages her seven children to steal food. When the character confronts police officers and runs into the drug-addict father of her children, she delivers the punch line – “You can have my welfare check!”

According to the post’s author, when asked who the poem was referring to, the student said “Minorities, because they’re the main ones on welfare.”

Besides the obviously skewed viewpoint the poem expresses, it is alarming to note that the girl reading the poem was one of two black students in the classroom – the rest being white.

This unsettlingly common view of cash assistance recipients in the U.S. dates back to the 1976 presidential campaign, when Ronald Reagan popularized a hyperbolic framework for female welfare recipients known as the “welfare queen.” The stereotype is sexist, racist, and belittles the legitimacy of cash assistance programs, criminalizing and disparaging those in need.

While the infamous star of the “welfare queen” narrative, cruising around in her “welfare Cadillac” was nowhere to be found by the national media, the fictional picture of lower class minority women abusing the system that gives them monthly “hand-outs” continues to shape the way Americans think about welfare recipients. Moreover, this misconception adversely affects the largest demographic benefitting from cash assistance – children.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Government, Pennsylvania, Politics, Welfare

Anti-abortion Activists Contest Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s Telemedicine Program

Last month, we discussed the medical abortion pill’s progress ten years after its FDA approval and noted that its approval hadn’t increased access to abortion as much as women’s health advocates had hoped. The Guttmacher Institute tells us that women in areas that already have surgical abortion access have an additional option, but for women in areas with limited or no surgical abortion access, mifepristone is not easily obtained either.

This is where telemedicine comes in, specifically the one run by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Iowa. The Women’s Health Policy Report describes the procedure as follows:

The telemedicine system allows Des Moines-based physicians to conduct video consultations with patients in rural clinics who are seeking abortion services and are no more than nine weeks pregnant. If a physician decides that a patient is an appropriate candidate for a medical abortion, he or she can use a computer command to remotely open a drawer in front of the patient. The patient removes the medication from the drawer and takes the first dose while the physician watches.

The service has increased access in rural areas where women are otherwise less likely to receive abortion services, but it’s now under threat of discontinuation. The Iowa Board of Medicine is considering changing its telemedicine policy due to a dozen anti-abortion activists who spoke out a public comment session last week. Iowa Right to Life Executive Director Jenifer Bowen presented a petition titled “Stop Web-cam Abortions in Iowa” that contains 3,900 signatures of those opposed to the telemedicine service.

According to the Women’s Health Policy Report, anti-abortion activists claim the service violates an Iowa law requiring that abortions be performed by a physician. However, Jill June, president of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said the program’s legality was thoroughly researched.

The future of the telemedicine program hangs in the balance, but both sides of the debate acknowledge that the issue at hand is the right to abortion, rather than the procedure itself. Anti-abortion activists are rallying against the procedure as part of the larger agenda to ban abortion altogether. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s telemedicine system is the first in the United States, and has assisted more than 1,500 women. The Des Moines Register says an update is expected at the Iowa Board of Medicine’s meeting in December.

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Filed under Abortion, Government, Planned Parenthood, Women's health