Sentenced to Forfeit Human Rights

At least 148 women prisoners in California were recently sterilized under great pressure from doctors employed by the state. It is heartbreaking and shocking to learn that even today, in a liberal state, American women continue to be denied their fundamental human right to decide whether or not to have children again.

Unfortunately, coerced sterilization is just the tip of the iceberg for incarcerated women. The dizzying array of rights violations women in U.S. prisons face range from shackling during labor and delivery (even when there is no flight risk and such treatment would negatively affect women's health) to sterilization used as a bargaining chip for reduced sentences.

Incarcerated women are at an increased risk for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and yet have diminished access to reproductive health care. The atrocious delivery of health care services in prison means that incarcerated women rarely receive prenatal care, and access to pregnancy testing is limited. Women in prison are denied access to abortion services, even in cases of rape or severe risk to health or life, because of lack of transportation, logistical support and funding.

Rather than offering supportive services and parenting education, a harsh punitive approach to motherhood is applied to women in prison that results in extreme violations of reproductive rights. Women in prison are punished for becoming parents and for being parents. Prison locations and visitation programs make it difficult, if not impossible, for children to maintain contact with their incarcerated mothers. Family reunification upon reentry to their communities is challenging and often unnecessarily traumatic for families. Terminating the parental rights of incarcerated parents is frequently presumed to be in a child's best interests.

When a woman is sentenced to prison, she does not forfeit her human rights. Our country's alarming history of eugenics, reproductive coercion and abuse, particularly among women of color and those most marginalized, demonstrates the need for systematic reform of our criminal justice system.

Ultimately, we need more humane and cost-efficient alternatives to incarceration for women, particularly single mothers. Model programs, such as Drew House in New York City, allow women to serve their sentences in a supervised setting while preserving their family structure and providing access to needed services. Many women land in the criminal justice system as a direct consequence of the inequalities and dangers that women disproportionately face, including poverty and sexual and domestic abuse. Programs that provide quality alternatives to incarceration enable women to continue their vital family and care-giving responsibilities to the benefit of their children, families and society.

The continuing deprivation of the human rights of women in our nation must be stopped.