Rep. Pressley aims to help pregnant incarcerated women who are ‘forgotten and ignored’

“Too often, incarcerated pregnant people are forgotten and ignored,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., reintroduced the Justice for Incarcerated Moms Act to protect the mental and physical health of Black women behind bars.  

“Too often, incarcerated pregnant people are forgotten and ignored, and their maternal health – particularly for Black women, who are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women – suffers because of it,” Pressley told theGrio in a statement.

Black mothers death rates
FILE – A doctor uses a hand-held Doppler probe on a pregnant woman to measure the heartbeat of the fetus on Dec. 17, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. COVID-19 drove a dramatic increase in the number of women who died from pregnancy or childbirth complications in the U.S. last year, a crisis that has disproportionately claimed Black and Hispanic women as victims, according to a report released Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

“A safe pregnancy and postpartum recovery should be a right, not a privilege, and every person should be able to experience their pregnancy without worrying if they will survive delivery —including those behind the wall,” the congresswoman continued.

The bill also aims to end the practice of shackling pregnant women, provide financial resources for correctional facilities that offer mental health programs for incarcerated pregnant women, and establish the first comprehensive study on maternal mortality and maternal morbidity for incarcerated women.

Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, told theGrio that the act of shackling pregnant women is barbaric and questioned why “society thinks it’s OK to incarcerate pregnant women.”

“Our prisons and jails are not equipped to provide them with the best care,” said James, who lamented that “health care in general for every woman who is incarcerated is horrible” and “there is no appropriate mental health care.”

She continued, “We’re still fighting to get appropriate feminine hygiene products in every county to have them accessible to women, and so when we talk about higher degrees of levels of need in terms of health care, it just doesn’t exist.”

James said pregnant women face inhumane and “toxic” conditions while in prison that often lead to stress and trauma.

For example, when some women go into labor, James noted that “their calls for help have gone unheard by prison guards, particularly at night.” In some cases, women are compelled to deliver babies by themselves, while others have endured miscarriages inside their cells after not being “discovered for more than a day.”

The Justice for Incarcerated Moms Act is personal for Pressley, who shared that her father and grandfather were once incarcerated, and her grandmother died during childbirth in the 1950s. The congresswoman said she wants to ensure that Black pregnant women are specially treated fairly behind bars.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., tells reporters she wants to remove the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 27, 2023. Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a Democratic measure to revive the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have removed a 1982 deadline for state ratification and reopened the process to amend the Constitution. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“This bill is about the basic dignity, humanity, and health of all people. We must create the systems necessary to address the Black maternal health crisis everywhere it exists. Justice and equity can’t come without it,” said Pressley.

James said she believes Pressley’s legislation is a step in the right direction.

[Pressley] has worked with our organization over the years on a number of different pieces of policy and legislation, and so she is acutely aware of what women endure during periods of incarceration,” she asserted. “There’s nothing more important than protecting the health care of women during prenatal and postpartum periods of incarceration.”

Pressley first introduced the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021. Shortly after, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. However, the bill never made it to the House floor for a vote.

The congresswoman said that if this bill is enacted into law it would “create the systems necessary to protect the dignity and humanity of incarcerated pregnant people and enlists them as partners in our fight for justice and equity.”

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