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.


About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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