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Gov. Cooper signs bill aimed to protect dignity and health of incarcerated women


Megan Canady is a research associate for the collaborative for maternal and infant health and a member of the North Carolina Perinatal Health and Incarceration Working Group, which works to improve health outcomes of pregnant and postpartum women during and post-incarceration. She poses for a portrait inside the Hill Alumni Center on Sept. 21. 

On Sept. 10, Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 608, entitled "Dignity for Women Who are Incarcerated," which focuses on expanding the privacy of women in the prison system. It also mandates improved care for pregnant incarcerated women, unborn children and women in postpartum recovery. 

Specifically, the bill limits the use of restraints on pregnant women, body cavity searches of women who are pregnant or in postpartum recovery and the placement of pregnant or recovering women in restrictive housing.

Cooper was very supportive of the reforms instituted by the bill, which he said were a great way to ensure that pregnant women remain safe while incarcerated. 

“This legislation takes important steps to protect women who are incarcerated during and after pregnancy and labor,” Cooper said in a statement.

Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance, Guilford, stated that these limitations are designed to address some of the negative effects stress can have on pregnant women and the fetus that could be incurred during incarceration.

“(The bill) also addresses the harm that comes to the unborn baby from the stress hormones, such as cortisol, that flood the pregnant incarcerated woman during times she is shackled or having a body cavity search," Galey said. 

The bill stipulates that the Department of Public Safety and correctional facility administrator must provide sufficient food and dietary supplements for pregnant incarcerated women as prescribed by a physician, physician staff member or correctional facility nutritionist. Hygiene products — such as sanitary napkins, underwear and menstrual products — must also be provided. 

Training and technical assistance

HB 608 also instructs the Department of Public Safety to develop more intensive training programs for state prison employees dealing with incarcerated women, particularly those that are pregnant. 

Those programs will look to further instruct employees of general care of pregnant women, the impact of restraints on pregnant incarcerated persons and fetuses, the effect of restrictive housing on pregnant women and the effects of body cavity searches. 

Megan Canady, a research associate for the Collaborative for Maternal and Infant Health, said that establishing a more robust, standardized set of policies through which to train prison employees would benefit the implementation of the bill by providing better guidance for prison officials on how to supply proper care. 

The Department of Public Safety will work in conjunction with three different subdivisions of the  N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to create training programs that adhere to the standards set by HB 608. Canady said the success of the bill in establishing better treatment for incarcerated women is dependent on the adequacy of these programs. 

The bill also specifies that educational programs will also be given to pregnant incarcerated women on the topics of prenatal care, pregnancy-specific hygiene, parenting skills, the impact of alcohol and drugs on the fetus and the general health of children. 

Advocates say more must be done

Sangria Noble, an advocate from the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, said that HB 608 doesn't go far enough in protecting the safety of pregnant women. 

“I hope that now that this is being looked into more, that there are significant changes that occur with women in the system," Noble said. But ... I think a change should be made as soon as they have knowledge of a woman being pregnant.” 

As it stands, HB 608 only limits the use of restraints on pregnant women in the second and third trimesters, leaving newly pregnant women unprotected. 

Noble also highlighted the necessity of the training programs mentioned above in rehabilitating incarcerated women, and ensuring they have a smoother transition into life outside prison. 

She said that programs for rehabilitating women dealing with issues of substance abuse, as well as maintaining sufficient bonding time between children and incarcerated mothers, is essential for empowering these women by not only strengthening their familial ties, but by providing them with the resources to continue their rehabilitation outside the prison system. 

“All these programs together, I hope, will inspire hope to pregnant women that they can be reunited with their child, prevent them from going into any type of mental health breakdown and also keep a bond between the mother and child,” Noble said.

Bipartisan support

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HB 608 represents a concerted effort by both parties in the state legislature to expand protections for incarcerated women. 

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Caswell, Orange, said there is “agreement across parties that our criminal justice system needs to do better at rehabilitation, giving people a better chance at successful life beyond prison and decreasing the likelihood that they later depend on public assistance,” or are incarcerated again. 

Senator Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, remarked that the bill “represents a larger effort of criminal justice reform in our state.”

According to Meyer, this legislation represents one of the few areas we see bipartisan support, reflecting how the importance of the issue has transcended party lines. 

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