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More Pregnant, Mentally Ill Women Incarcerated in State Prisons Nationwide

More women are being sent to prison nationwide at astonishing rates that surpass any other demographic. What's more, they are forced to deal with issues men don't, including pregnancy behind bars and a higher likelihood of mental illness in prison resulting from homelessness, sexual abuse and other traumas.

According to data from the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, 74% of women in state prisons have mental health difficulties, whereas 55% of men in prison have such issues. Greater rates of sexual and physical abuse among women, beginning as children and continuing into adulthood, result in a higher predominance of mental illnesses, said Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

"Too often, people do not receive the type of treatment they need in prison," she said.

Since the 1980s, the women's prison population has been growing nationwide at a higher rate than the men's—50% higher, to be precise— according to the Sentencing Project.

In Maryland, for example, there was a 344% increase in the women's prison population between 1977 and 2004, according to data from the Women's Prison Association. That figure is dwarfed by the astounding increase in Montana, where its 23,550% increase in female prisoners ranks as the highest in the country. Overall, women now make up 7% of the national prison population.

The increase in the female population has made the treatment of pregnant women in prisons and jails—who number between 5,000 and 10,000 every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics—a hot-button issue in many states, including Maryland, which is one of 32 states where at least some correctional facilities use restraints on pregnant prisoners during transportation, delivery and recovery.

Maryland House Bill 829, which would have banned the use of shackles on pregnant prisoners and standardized the use of restraints statewide, failed in the 2013 legislative session.

Thankfully, Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS)—which operates the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup and the Baltimore City Detention Center—has prohibited restraining pregnant women during labor, delivery and post-delivery since 2012. The exception, according to Mark Vernarelli, DPSCS director of public information, is if the prisoner—as determined by hospital staff—poses a risk to herself or others or if she presents a high probability of escape.

"We do not restrain inmates unless the hospital orders it. It's the hospital that would require this, presumably in an emergency situation," Vernarelli said. "Our policy is that pregnant inmates are not restrained."

To ensure such policy is not changed at the political whim of state officials, Maryland's anti-shackling bill will be re-introduced in 2014.


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