Tough Cell | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

With a rising population of incarcerated women, a number of advocacy groups are taking action to improve conditions for both those behind bars and their unborn children.

Improving life for female offenders has been on the radars of groups like New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice and Lydia's Place, a local nonprofit that helps incarcerated women and their children.

After recently receiving a $6,000 grant -- one of 10 area organizations so funded by the Women and Girls Foundation -- the NVP is embarking on its first major campaign, FOCUS on Women.

NVP leader La'Tasha Mayes says that work done at the Allegheny County Jail by various activist groups -- a statewide bill against shackling pregnant prisoners currently before the Senate, as well as the recent grant -- was the impetus to undertake the policy-change project. Based on what the NVP sees and hears from other organizations who work with incarcerated women, Mayes says her group has an idea of what conditions are like.

"We want to demonstrate better models for how incarcerated women are treated or rehabilitated in the so-called criminal justice system. We want to say there are better ways to support women who happen to be incarcerated," says Mayes, 28, of Morningside. "But part of our campaign is to find out what we don't know: What are the actual conditions of incarcerated women? What are their reproductive health care and general health care? What is their nutrition like? How are they treated? Are there violations of human rights?"

FOCUS is meant to study and improve conditions for non-violent female offenders in the county jail, including improvements to general and reproductive health care. 

To do that, the organization is leading the grassroots campaign for long-term policy change. Plans include raising awareness with county jail management, the district attorney, criminal-justice agencies and residents; documenting conditions in the jail; and presenting models for gender-specific jail facilities.

"We have to engage our Allegheny County government. We have to engage the leadership of [the] Allegheny County Jail. We have to engage incarcerated women themselves because those who are affected must lead the change we want to see," Mayes says. "So we're not doing this for them. We're doing it together. They're doing it with us. We have the capacity to help them making a change for themselves, their own lives, for their families and their communities."

In 2006, the nonprofit group Lydia's Place led a successful effort, with the help of a WGF grant, to get the Allegheny County Sheriff's department to ban the policy of shackling inmates during labor.

Lydia's Place executive director Vicki Sirockman says she hasn't heard of it happening since.

In general, Sirockman says there isn't much funding for services in women's corrections at the county level, something she attributes to it being a fairly new issue in the United States.

Citing statistics from the National Institute of Justice, Sirockman notes that the number of women incarcerated in the U.S has increased more than 500 percent since 1980.

"Mandatory drug sentencing is the biggest driver," Sirockman says. "Almost everyone who comes into our office has a drug problem, and committed a crime to support that habit."

For Heather Arnet, executive director at WGF, projects like those undertaken by Lydia's Place and NVP help ensure equal reproductive health-care rights to women despite their socioeconomic status.

"If we look at the data why most women are in the county jail and in prison, it's related to solicitation and prostitution and very minor drug offenses" says Arnet. "So they don't tend to be large dealers. They tend to get arrested for possession because of a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse in that constituency. 

"One of the best ways we could really serve those women and increase their rate of recovery is to think about more holistic approaches to social services and addiction-recovery programs, job development [and] workforce development training. So the best way to keep them out of prison would be to connect them to these kinds of social services."

Lydia's Place has also started an advocacy group to try to improve policies and services in the jail for nutrition and medical care for pregnant women, and is using a WGF grant to fund a public-health study of birth outcomes for female offenders at the Allegheny County Jail. 

"It's quality of care -- it's perfunctory," Sirockman says. "It's not what it should be, and the babies didn't ask to go to jail."

Sirockman says about an average of four inmates per week are pregnant at the jail.

The female population accounts for 10 percent of the overall population in the Allegheny County Jail. The population is currently around 250, most of whom Warden Ramon Rustin says are considered non-violent offenders. Pregnant offenders, he says, have a special diet and are involved with the internal-care program at the jail.

"Pregnant offenders warrant special care and the jail is mandated to ensure they receive medical care," Rustin says. "We all want them to have healthy babies."

The warden says he would support a facility with a more dorm-style setting designed for women, rather than the current maximum-security facility that has cells designed for men -- who Rustin says are typically more destructive -- with 12-feet thick concrete walls and steel doors. 

"In general in corrections, written policies were more for males," Rustin says. "It's taken corrections a long time to get up to speed with female offenders."

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