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States Reconsider Putting New Mothers in Prison

When lawyers for Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes argued for a delay in starting her 11-year federal prison sentence because she has two "very young children," they were urging an accommodation that historically hasn't mattered. But that is changing, as states rethink sending new mothers to prison, the Marshall Project reports. For the vast majority of women, being a parent is rarely considered a mitigating factor to keep them out of prison or jail. Roughly 173,000 women are incarcerated in the United States, with Black and Latina women held at roughly twice the rate of white women. Nearly 60% of women in prison and about 80% in local jails are parents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Separating mothers from their children has devastating consequences for both parties, research shows. Prisons and jails are ill-equipped to deal with the physical and emotional challenges of pregnancy and the vulnerable period after birth. Mothers who wind up in prison are far more likely than their male counterparts to have their parental rights permanently terminated. And parental incarceration is considered by public health experts to be an adverse childhood experience that can inflict lifelong harm on children’s health and well-being.

Because of those recognized harms, 12 states now have laws to reduce the impact of parental incarceration, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. These legislative efforts include requirements that parents be detained closer to home or programs to divert parents from prison or jail altogether. Many formerly incarcerated women advocating for these bills say they are a good first step to reducing the collateral traumas of incarceration. Florida, Hawaii, New York, Missouri and the federal system now require parents to be incarcerated within a specified distance of their kids, making visitation easier. Eight states, including Illinois, Tennessee, and Louisiana, require that a person’s status as the sole caregiver be considered a mitigating factor during sentencing, or that parents are given priority access to alternatives to incarceration. Lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island are considering similar legislation. Proponents of ending the incarceration of women and girls say locking women up so soon after giving birth puts them at risk. Other challenges are mental and emotional. Post-pregnancy, women are adjusting to a cascade of hormones that can profoundly affect their mood. Birthing parents are typically assessed for postpartum depression at their six-week checkup.


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