PA County Jails Fail Legal Standards of Health Care for Women

courtesy of Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!

PA County Jails Fail Legal Standards of Health Care for Women

In the first assessment of women's reproductive healthcare in jails across PA, the ACLU found that all 57 jails fail to meet minimum human rights standards of healthcare for women. The recent report, "Reproductive Health Locked Up: An Examination of Pennsylvania Jail Policies," exposes an uneven patchwork of health care policies that fail to address the most basic reproductive health services, such as pregnancy testing, prenatal care, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and access to abortion services.

Of the 57 counties that house women, the ACLU-PA found:

Only twelve counties had gender-specific health screenings.
*Ten counties have no policy on testing for pregnancy.
*Eleven counties had no written policies about prenatal care.
*It was unclear from the information whether any of the prisons provided adequate nutritional needs for pregnant women in any county prison were being met. Adequate prenatal nutrition is crucial to a healthy birth.
*Only two counties required all inmates to be tested for STDs and HIV during intake.
*Twenty counties had no abortion policies.
*No county allowed women to use contraception for the purpose of pregnancy prevention during incarceration. Irregular use of hormonal contraception can greatly increase the risk of pregnancy, particularly for those women with short jail stays.

Carol Petraitis, author of the report and director of PA's Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project stated in a press release, that lack of clear policies and lack of health care standards for women behind bars puts a large number of women at risk under the discretion of jail officials. Because the government is responsible for prisoners in their care, the report contends that counties are legally vulnerable if and when things go wrong.

Though there are currently 3,800 women in PA county jails, those originally built for men, have been slow to adapt to the specific needs women in lock up. Several recent events, including the premature birth of twins to a drug-addicted mother in Luzerne County Correctional Facility and the subsequent death of one of the babies, highlight the critical need for Pennsylvania's county prisons to adopt comprehensive reproductive health policies and follow them. Three-quarters of women currently incarcerated in PA Jails are of reproductive age, and the majority are mothers and the sole caretakers of their children. Most are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, are undereducated, come from minority groups, and fall below the poverty line. Approximately 6 percent of all female inmates are pregnant upon admission to jail.

Copies of the report were mailed to all county prison board members, solicitors, wardens, and medical contractors last week. In its cover letters, the ACLU-PA highlighted the particular weaknesses of each jail and offered to work with the counties to improve their policies and practices. The report contains a series of recommendations that could be immediately implemented at any county jail so that incarcerated women have access to comprehensive health care. Those recommendations include developing policies that would:

*Provide routine reproductive health care including, age-appropriate mammography, screening for STDs and HIV, and Pap tests.
*Educate women about contraception and family planning.
*Provide women with emergency contraception upon request.
*Screen all women for pregnancy, especially those that are high risk.
*Provide mental health services to women following miscarriage, abortion and birth.
*Prepare for the timely transport of pregnant women to appropriate facilities for labor and delivery.
*Provide pregnant women with adequate prenatal care and nutrition.

Access the full report: Reproductive Health Locked Up: An Examination of Pennsylvania Jail Policies