by Chuck Sharman
After a media investigation found Illinois prisoners were forced to pay for abortion procedures – even covering the wages of guard escorts to and from medical providers – Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) ordered the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to change its policy.
As a result, DOC spokesperson Naomi Puzello announced on November 2, 2022, that incarcerated women would no longer have to cover these expenses, and those who previously paid for them could get reimbursed.
That’s especially important to a woman working a prison job, which in Illinois pays an hourly wage that tops out at 89 cents. Covering just one hour of the $47,508 starting salary for a state prison guard would require her to work four days or more.
Advocates for abortion rights expressed surprise and elation at the decision. Emily Hirsch, a legal fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, emphasized the importance of ensuring unfettered access to critical healthcare, including abortion, for every person in need.
“We applaud the Governor’s Office for taking an important step toward that goal,” she said.
Puzello confirmed that the new guidelines had been implemented and that DOC’s privately contracted healthcare provider, Wexford Health Sources, was in the loop. However, specific details were not provided on how access would be ensured, how reimbursements would be provided or how pregnant prisoners would be made aware of their rights.
Illinois joins states like California, New Jersey and Oregon in making abortion more accessible to prisoners. California covers the cost of abortion in prisons and jails. New Jersey law requires the state DOC to arrange for abortions “without undue delay.” Oregon’s policy ensures no-cost abortion services for prisoners that are also “provided in a non-judgmental fashion.” In contrast, states like Utah and Missouri do not offer abortions for prisoners nor cover related expenses, including transportation.
WBEZ in Chicago produced the investigation that sparked the change. After it was announced, Alicia Hurtado from the Chicago Abortion Fund expressed optimism about expanding access to care and minimizing the impact of the criminal legal system on healthcare outcomes.
“I am hopeful that this will help a lot of people access care in ways that was previously impossible, or previously extremely detrimental or traumatizing,” she said.
The DOC announcement also included an apology from the Pritzker administration for the state’s previous treatment of pregnant prisoners seeking abortion services, acknowledging the additional trauma caused and expressing regret for harm inflicted.
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