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Female prisoners deserve dignity

Inmates at the state correctional facility for women in Cambridge Springs, near Erie earn an optician's certificate while making eye glasses in a prison program. The experience sets them up for a well-paying job once they're released.
Inmates at the state correctional facility for women in Cambridge Springs, near Erie earn an optician's certificate while making eye glasses in a prison program. The experience sets them up for a well-paying job once they're released. (LAURIE MASON SCHROEDER / THE MORNING CALL)

For incarcerated women, maintaining basic dignity has become a daily struggle. And dignity — the feeling that you matter — is fundamental to individuals having any chance of successfully re-entering society.

The dignity of women in prison is finally being recognized as a national issue, one we can no longer ignore. Last month, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, which among other prison reforms, addresses some of the unjust, inhumane conditions women face in federal prisons. While the bill is not perfect, it is, like its title proclaims, a first step. The bill, which is now in the Senate, not only addresses feminine hygiene products for imprisoned women but also bans the shackling of pregnant women.

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States are following suit with similar legislation. Georgia has legislation pending, and the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Connecticut recently passed feminine hygiene-related bills — many with innovative provisions to benefit women. For example, Connecticut's legislation allows women to pump and store breast milk for their babies. And Louisiana’s new law, passed in late May, establishes regulations to prevent male correctional guards from performing strip searches or entering areas where women are undressing.

Change is coming at a rapid rate, and not always directly through legislation. These concerns have spurred powerful social movements, including the recent #Letitflow campaign (which inspired women to send Republican Arizona Rep. T.J. Shope pads and tampons, signaling their support for incarcerated women’s hygiene) and #cut50, which held a “Day of Empathy” this spring to help amplify the voices of formerly-incarcerated women; #cut50 is fighting for women to have better health care and better treatment in prisons and encouraging lawmakers to introduce reform bills in 20 states by 2020. It is a cause that has united both Democrats and Republicans; even the American Conservatives Union has allied itself with #cut50.

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The authorities cannot help but respond to these grassroots movements. In response to #Letitflow, Arizona’s Department of Corrections changed their policy from 12 free sanitary pads per month to 36. Similarly, shortly after the federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced, the Bureau of Prisons made tampons and pads available free of charge to all incarcerated women in federal prison. While these policy changes should be lauded, legislation still has an important role in cementing reforms so that positive shifts are not rolled back because of future changes in leadership.

It’s that time of the month again when millions of girls, women, transgender and gender nonconforming people will get their periods.

At the heart of all of these efforts is, believe it or not, the issue of re-entry. Prisoners should not leave prison and re-enter society in a worse condition than when they were initially incarcerated — if so, society pays the cost.

There are obvious factors we could measure to indicate that an individual is worse off after incarceration — diminished health or employment prospects, for example. However, there is a much more fundamental measure, one that is harder to quantify: dignity.

Tucked away in the basement of SCI Cambridge Springs, one of Pennsylvania’s two correctional facilities for women, a little known program is helping some female inmates learn how to become opticians, a job could net them a high paying job they go home.

We all know how important it is to feel self-worth — to be seen, heard and treated as if we matter. And we also know how it feels to be treated as inferior, ignored or excluded. Affronts to our dignity reach into the core of our being, injuring the most vital, vulnerable part of ourselves.

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If we label people as unworthy of the basic dignities of humanity, they will likely start to see themselves as shut out of the human family and act accordingly. Self-worth is essential to success, particularly upon re-entry, where women must navigate the challenges of acquiring housing, caring for family and seeking employment. To enable women to successfully re-enter society, we have to make clear that they are a part of humanity and protected from the fundamental degradation that occurs from being treated as subhuman.

The bill would require the state to provide feminine hygiene products to all incarcerated women free of charge and it would establish a system in which expectant incarcerated mothers receive prenatal, labor and postpartum services.

Treating confined women with dignity can reduce crime and improve public safety. Being forced to sit in one’s own fluids for days, at the mercy of male guards denying access to sanitary products, is a traumatic experience. Being shackled while pregnant, and then being denied visitation with your child is a traumatic experience. Reducing this trauma can actually increase a woman’s chance of success in abstaining from criminal behavior once she is released from prison.

Changing policies to treat our most vulnerable women with dignity is the first step to acknowledging their place at the table. The proposed pieces of federal and state legislation are ultimately built on restoring basic human rights to women, who are now the fastest-growing population of prisoners.

Feminine hygiene products stand for so much more than monthly necessities; they demonstrate our society’s commitment to self-worth and health. A no-cost phone call from a mother to a child is much more than a few minutes of communication; it is the fiber that connects their relationship. Denying these products and services sends a powerfully harmful message to women: that they have been cast aside, forgotten and are no longer privy to the American dream. The 215,332 women and 7,727 girls incarcerated in the United States deserve better.

Nila Bala (Twitter: @nilabala3) is a criminal justice fellow at R Street and former public defender in Baltimore.

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