On Tuesday, the Georgia Dignity Act (House Bill 345) went into effect in all women’s prison facilities in Georgia, giving more than 3,800 women locked up in the state access to basic necessities like sanitary napkins, as well as affording them the decency of not being chained while pregnant or giving birth.
The bipartisan bill, written and by Georgia State Reps. Sharon Cooper, a Republican who represents Marietta, and Democrat David Dryer of Atlanta, was signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in May (this, the same man who signed the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which certainly doesn’t afford women who are pregnant the dignity of autonomy over their own reproductive healthcare choices, but I digress.)
According to #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice organization that works closely with those with lived experience to enact reform, HB 345 includes the following provisions for women in Georgia jails and prisons:
- Banning the practice of shackling pregnant and postpartum women or placing them in solitary confinement, and establishing a minimum six-week postpartum period before placing restraints on women;
- Providing adequate access to feminine hygiene products and medical information concerning menopause and other health issues unique to women;
- Protecting women from abuse and retraumatization by male correctional officers by limiting the practice of unnecessary strip searches or observation during showers and OBGYN visits;
- Forcing the department of corrections to take into account the location of an incarcerated women’s spouse or children; and
- Mandatory gender-sensitivity training for law enforcement officers across the state.
“Women are the fastest-growing population in American prisons and the treatment that they endure behind bars is undignified and cruel,” said Michael Mendoza, national director of #cut50, in a statement. “We are proud to work with so many incredible advocates to improve conditions, ensure safety, and fight for critical protection for incarcerated women. We will continue to fight for their dignity across the country.”
Midwives of Georgia notes that until yesterday, Georgia was one of six states that still allowed shackling of women during labor and postpartum, and that the shackling itself is based on protocols developed for men.
Pamela Winn, now a Georgia dignity ambassador with #cut50, lost her baby to a miscarriage while incarcerated in federal prison.
“When I was in solitary confinement trying not to lose my mind over the guilt and sadness I felt for the loss of my baby, I felt hopeless and helpless,” said Winn. “By grace, I made it through and returned home with the desire to change things for all the sisters I left behind. Today, I’m so humbly excited to see my dream become reality. No other woman in Georgia will have to endure the dehumanizing and torturous treatment that I experienced. I’m thankful to bring dignity to incarcerated women!”
Other states are following suit: Valencia Gunder is a criminal justice program manager for the New Florida Majority, and the lead organizer and ambassador for #cut50’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign in Florida. She says she’s working to get a Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk this year. She recounted her own harrowing experience in a blog post that highlights the daily humiliation and unmet needs of women who are jailed:
As a young college student, I forged a $1,700 check to cover my tuition costs and as a result, was incarcerated. Over the course of my incarceration, which lasted 30 days, I was transferred between several different facilities. The experience was disruptive to my family and my life. But I learned that our prisons and jails were completely unresponsive to the unique needs of women and I made a vow to fight to change things for all the women I left behind.
Most people don’t realize that women incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections only earn between 20¢ and 50¢ per hour. And it typically takes about 16 hours of work for women to earn enough money to pay for essential feminine hygiene items like tampons and pads.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act could change this. It would require the Florida Department of Corrections to supply incarcerated women with these necessary items and other basic hygiene supplies that we take for granted on the outside.
Just because a woman is incarcerated doesn’t mean that they don’t want to feel sanitized, safe and healthy. Tampons and pads aren’t the only basic hygiene products incarcerated women must purchase for themselves – they also have to buy toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap out of pocket.
Sadly, many incarcerated women sacrifice their own basic hygiene just so they can afford expensive phone calls home to loved ones.
As Topeka K. Sam, director of Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign, notes on the #cut50 website, “The Dignity Campaign is an opportunity to provide other formerly incarcerated and incarcerated women with a national platform to use their experiences and build leadership. I am grateful to #cut50 and Jessica [Jackson -Sloan, co-founder and National Director of #cut50] for understanding the need for formerly incarcerated women to lead the work.”