Senators Kamala D. Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Richard Durbin introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act earlier this year, a bill that seeks to modify visitation guidelines and quality of treatment, among other aspects, for women in prison. The bill is meant to protect women, strengthen families, and address some of the glaring inequalities in the prison system.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act has several components. The bill would require the Bureau of Prisons consider the location of children when placing incarcerated women in prisons, so that mothers and their children may be geographically closer to each other. The bill would also require the BOP to create better visitation policies for primary caretaker parents. Additionally, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would prevent pregnant inmates from being shackled and put in solitary confinement; would allow all pregnant women and primary caretaker parents to enroll in the Residential Drug Abuse program; would make tampons and pads free; would create an overnight visit program for women and children; and would make phone calls and video-conferencing free for inmates and their families. Read more about the proposals here.
The bill’s focus on family and the needs of children is excellent. More than two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers, and a majority of these women have children under the age of 18. Free phone calls and video-conferencing will drastically reduce communication barriers due to previously low funds. Incarcerated women should not have to pay fees to stay in touch with their children. Furthermore, placing incarcerated women in prisons close to their children is important because it gives more opportunities for families to see each other – and this is important especially for young children in their formative years. Allowing all pregnant women and mothers to enroll in the Residential Drug Abuse Program is essential to changing our views on addiction, and treating it as a disease instead of a crime. This initiative will let mothers get the help they need to address substance abuse, which is important so that women can avoid recidivism and return to their families healthy and in a position to provide for their children.
More recently, the BOP made it mandatory for federal prisons to provide feminine hygiene products to inmates at no charge, a change that women’s rights activists and prison-reform activists praised. While this is a positive step forward, there is definitely more that can be done, and that’s why the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act is so important.
Many Americans recognize the gross injustices in the American prison system and the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act is a reflection of the concern politicians and the general public alike have for vulnerable communities behind bars. The Vera Institute for Justice claims that 86 percent of women in jail have suffered from past sexual assault and 77 percent have experienced domestic violence. Incarcerated women are often women of color and/or come from impoverished backgrounds. If we truly want to rehabilitate incarcerated women, we have to give them the humanity and support they need to address mental health, physical health, childcare, and essential life skills.