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Pa. lawmakers want to improve conditions for women in prison

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.
Emma Lee
The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

A proposal that’s moving forward in the state legislature aims to make conditions a little better for pregnant women in Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons.

The bill from Rep. Lori Mizgorski (R-Allegheny) would limit how and when disciplinary tools like restraints and solitary confinement can be used. It would also guarantee visitation rights between mothers and children in most circumstances, and require prisons to offer feminine hygiene products.

The House unanimously voted for those ideas on Monday.

“Despite being incarcerated, these women are still mothers, wifes, sisters, daughters,” Mizgorski said. “It is in everyone’s best interest that we treat them with dignity.”

Legal advocacy groups like the ACLU have been pushing states to curb punishments like solitary confinement as the country’s female prison population has skyrocketed.

In 2017, the Vera Institute of Justice reported 12 times as many women were imprisoned in Pennsylvania than in 1970. More recent data from The Sentencing Project shows the number remains high in prisons across the U.S., even though female populations have been declining since 2015.

During debate, Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia) said certain types of so-called “alternative punishment” like solitary confinement can amplify traumas women carry with them when entering prison.

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“Many have suffered some type of physical or sexual abuse, or some type of substance abuse challenges, and they face particularly daunting obstacles when they return to society,” she said.

Under the bill, corrections officers could only use things like restraints as a last resort – and would have to explain the disciplinary moves in detailed incident reports. Women prisoners would generally only face “sanctions, including restrictions on telephone usage or visitation.”

Male prison guards would also be barred from monitoring pregnant prisoners at their prenatal and delivery appointments. The women could also spend at least three days with their newborn children – and then be allowed to visit them each week.

Prisons would also have to provide prisoners feminine hygiene products.

Mizgorski said Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections already offers women in state prisons some of those accommodations. The agency did not respond to a request asking for clarification.

The House-approved proposal can only become law if state senators and Governor Tom Wolf sign off by the end of November.