Prisons in the United States Must Address Women’s Health

By: Angelina Chiang

Rooted deep in our legal system are the biases that fail to acknowledge the complex needs of incarcerated women. Despite the rise in attention to gender equality, acts of disparity still ring loudly within prison walls.

The prison structure is predominantly based on a “male-specific model,” a framework far removed from the biological and physiological needs of women. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are often instances where their specific reproductive, health, and hygiene needs are not met. Gender-specific services that go beyond pregnancy, such as pre-and postnatal care, reproductive care, sexual health care, and screenings, are rarely provided. 

This deficiency is reflected in a recent incident in Tennessee, where a woman in custody gave birth alone in her jail cell after her pleas for medical attention were largely ignored. This event, described by State Senator Raumesh Akbari as “troubling,” highlights the pervasive struggle of incarcerated women not receiving timely and adequate care during pregnancy. Senator Akbari further emphasized the importance of treating incarcerated women with dignity, stating that they should have the same rights and protections “for themselves and their child regardless of their incarceration status,” as quoted in New York Times.

A series of similar incidents and patterns further substantiates this neglect, indicating a larger problem: a lack of national standards and protocols for female inmates. Women who have higher risks for preventable diseases such as cervical and breast cancer often go undetected and untreated, an issue that continues to reflect a deficit in government funding. Without proper care, these conditions can only worsen, leading to chronic pain and other health complications.

Already, quotas for physical health have failed to be met, but on top of that, mental health is taken in an even less serious manner. Women are constantly subjected to a substandard mental health environment with an absence of resources and improperly trained staff. While men typically direct their anger outward, women turn it inward. Men are more likely to display physical and sexual aggression, while women tend to exhibit symptoms of depression, self-harm, and suicide. Women engage in self-injury practices, like cutting, and also display verbally abusive and disruptive behaviors more frequently than men, as reported in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The failure of most prisons to accommodate the psychological needs of troubled women sets them up for a rocky, isolated time in prison and poses more challenges for them to face when re-entering society. 

Additionally, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 80% of incarcerated women are mothers and the majority are primary caretakers of their children. The difficulty of readjusting to prison life, as well as the added pressure of not knowing how your children are doing, can take a major mental toll on women. The emotional burden can intensify due to tough prison guidelines and fear of disciplinary measures. NPR reports that Lashonia Thompson-El, an inmate of 18 years, states that she “once was placed in solitary confinement for three months after making an unauthorized phone call to her 10-year-old daughter”.  While some of the infractions might seem minor, punishment for them can have significant consequences. 

These disparities and challenges not only harm incarcerated women but also reflect our society’s broader struggles with gender equality. Addressing the complex needs of female inmates goes beyond just correcting systemic oversights; it’s a wake up call for a shift in policy frameworks.

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