Advocating for Humane Treatment of Incarcerated Women

woman behind fence

The female prison population has grown more than 700% since 1980, particularly at the state and local level.  While efforts are being made to reduce the overall prison population, women do not always benefit from these reform initiatives. Incarcerated women also face unique challenges and unnecessary restrictions that negatively impact their health.

Ultimately, women need more opportunities for rehabilitative, gender-responsive alternatives to incarceration; and when they are incarcerated, women need a system that humanely and reliably supports their health.

Dangerous pregnancies

One of the most disturbing practices still used within many correctional institutions is the restraining and shackling of women during pregnancy and childbirth.  While the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibits this practice, it’s not consistently enforced. Approximately 2,000 babies are born to women in prison each year in America.  Shackling pregnant women when they are being transported to medical appointments and restraining them during childbirth is dangerous, not to mention cruel and unnecessary.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “the practice prevents healthy, natural labor movement, increases the chances that a laboring woman will fall, impedes medical providers’ ability to provide care during labor and childbirth, delays emergency care when necessary, and obstructs material infant bonding”.

pregnant women

Limitations to meeting basic needs

Additionally, access to maxi pads and tampons is not guaranteed.  Though federal prisons purportedly began providing free pads and tampons to all female inmates in 2017, this is another policy not consistently applied, and it does not help the majority of incarcerated women who are in state and local institutions.  Among the few states that do make these products freely available, senseless restrictions remain: “Female inmates in West Virginia state prisons cannot possess more than two boxes of tampons at a time.  Inmates in Delaware have to ask guards for sanitary pads, and are only given up to six at a time.  And tampons must be purchased.” Every woman needs uninhibited access to these products for a significant portion of her lifetime; putting archaic limits in place is an unnecessary show of control by correctional institutions.

Inequitable access to care

Finally, access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, is woefully inconsistent.  Given that the prison population is still mostly male, health care services designed specifically for women are hard to come by.  Health facilities within correctional institutions do not have to obtain accreditation, and primary and preventive care are not always available or adequate.  This is particularly concerning given that this population tends to have untreated physical and/or mental health challenges prior to incarceration,  making them especially vulnerable to poor outcomes and in need of specialized services.  Putting up barriers to healthcare access is another unnecessary and archaic practice in correctional settings.

Taking action

There are things you can do to help women behind bars:

  1.  Female representatives in the House have introduced federal legislation to ban shackling pregnant inmates, with bipartisan support; to learn more about this bill, called the Pregnant Women in Custody Act, click here.
  2. Find out if your state mandates free and adequate supplies of maxi pads and tampons for female inmates, and if not, contact your state representatives to advocate for this basic human need.  Get contact information for your representatives here.


Find out more about the issues impacting women and girls and what you can do to help on

Jean Henningsen is a nonprofit leader with over a decade of experience overseeing programs that help low-income individuals and families access critical resources to set them on a path towards financial stability. She has taken on a range of responsibilities, including grants management, partnership development, and staff supervision. Her robust skill set includes planning, writing, public speaking, budget development, and talent management. She is passionate about empowering women and girls to reach their full potential. She enjoys reading, baking, volunteering, traveling with her husband, and relaxing with her cat.

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