Incarcerated Women and Reproductive Justice

by Rachel Roth

Imprisonment is a critical issue for people who care about reproductive justice, because it endangers women's health, jeopardizes women's right to motherhood, and takes a disproportionate toll on poor women and women of color. The United States has the largest imprisoned population in the world, with the number of women rising from about 14,000 in the early 1970's to more than 200,000 today. These numbers reflect policy choices, including mandatory sentencing policies that harshly punish even minor, non-violent, drug-related offenses, as well as racial biases in policing and prosecution. Historically, there has been little accountability for what goes on behind prison walls, but a growing number of activists are working to change that.

Women tell deeply troubling stories about the way that imprisonment undermines their right to determine their reproductive lives. Many jails and prisons restrict women's access to abortion, even though women do not lose their right to have an abortion simply because they are imprisoned. On the flip side, women report that prenatal care is often sub-standard, miscarriage not treated as a medical emergency, and shackling common during labor and childbirth. Women also report a dangerous lack of routine preventive care. Without timely Pap tests or treatment for ovarian cysts, for instance, women may wind up with life-threatening conditions and major surgery, including hysterectomies. This medical neglect not only threatens women's future ability to have children, but women's very lives.

Most imprisoned women are mothers. Maintaining relationships with their children is incredibly challenging, thanks to limited visiting hours, the exorbitant cost of collect phone calls, and distance from home. In many states, women's prisons are in remote rural areas, even though most of the women come from cities; some women are sent to serve their time in other states. Worse yet, women who must place their children in foster care risk losing them forever.

Having a criminal record, especially a felony drug conviction, which so many women have, severely compromises another core component of reproductive justice - the ability to be a parent to one's children. This is because federal and state policies make it difficult or impossible for people with felony convictions to get public housing, food stamps or public assistance (TANF), student loans, or jobs - exactly the things that low-income women need to take care of their children. Without a place to live, women cannot regain custody of their children and begin the process of renewing family life together. Because many people with felony convictions are denied the right to vote, they cannot participate in the traditional political process to influence the policy decisions that directly affect their lives.

In addition to the impact on individuals and families, imprisonment exacts a price from all of us. At $60 billion per year, the budget for locking people up drains resources from initiatives that would foster reproductive justice, such as universal health care, substance abuse treatment, education, child care, and public works. And, finally, relegating an ever-bigger group of people to permanent second-class citizenship is at odds with an open and democratic society.

Getting Involved, Getting Help

There are few national resources for women in prison, let alone organizations working at the intersection of reproductive justice and imprisonment. All of the organizations below have something to offer, whether resources for women coming home or for families with a parent in prison, or resources specifically for the struggle for reproductive justice. All of these organizations have web sites, often with links to other groups and with articles and reports that can be downloaded for free.

  • American Civil Liberties Union (national office and local chapters) ; see especially "Your Right to Pregnancy-Related Health Care in Prison or Jail," a fact sheet with contact information for women needing assistance to obtain an abortion or prenatal care
  • American Friends Service Committee (national office and local chapters)
  • Amnesty International (national office and local chapters)
  • Critical Resistance (national office and local chapters)
  • Family & Corrections Network, with link to the Children's Bill of Rights for children with parents in prison
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Legal Action Center, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry (information on all 50 states)
  • National Advocates for Pregnant Women
  • California: Center for Young Women's Development, Justice Now, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
  • Washington: The Birth Attendants
  • Illinois: Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers
  • Georgia: Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, Inc.
  • District of Columbia: Our Place, DC, and DC Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
  • Maryland: Power Inside
  • New York: Correctional Association of New York, Women in Prison Project
  • Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance (
  • Defending Justice: An Activist Resource Kit (
  • Feminist Studies vol. 30, no. 2 (2004) and Social Politics vol. 11, no. 3 (2004), special issues on women and prison