Karen Fratti
July 13, 2017 6:39 am
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Democrats have all but been kicked out of the Senate while the Republicans work on their health care bill and others worry about the FBI’s Russia investigation, but there are some lawmakers out there who still believe Congress can be productive, even in 2017. Like the ever-optimistic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who introduced a federal prison reform bill this week. The bill is called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, and it’s being co-sponsored by California Sen. Kamala Harris and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin. It has a lot of provisions in it that are simply humane.

The bill would require federal prisons to provide free, quality (that’s important!) pads and tampons to inmates, instead of making them buy them at the commissary. It would also ban shackling pregnant women or putting pregnant women in solitary confinement. In addition to that, the real meat of the bill is about helping women maintain meaningful ties to their children and families while incarcerated.

Warren wants the Federal Bureau of Prisons to think about where a woman’s children live before placing an inmate, so that visits would be easier to make. The bill would also call for more visiting hours, free phone calls, and physical interaction during visits.

It’s pretty sick that prisons charge women and men to call their families from inside.

Warren said in a statement, “After their incarceration, these women will return to their families. They will be part of our communities, and it matters what kind of role these women will play after their incarceration. I believe that means that every one of us has an investment in these women.”

She added that lawmakers should “do [their] best to make sure [women inmates] are treated with basic dignity and they have a chance to emerge from their incarceration as intact human beings who are ready to come back to their communities, ready to come back to their families, and ready to make a real contribution.” Hey, sounds good to us.

So, basically, the DIWA wants to make life better for inmates and their families, both during and after their incarceration, which is why no one should get very excited about it passing anytime soon in this Republican-led Congress. But hey, a senator can dream, right? Booker said in a press conference announcing the bill, “We need to create a prison that, yes, is holding people accountable, and yes, is allowing people to pay their debt to society for mistakes they have made, but also is about the dignity of humanity.”

The bill would affect 12,695 women in federal prison, but not state prisons or jails, where most women are held anyway. But it’s a start. Some prisons do provide tampons, but they are limited in availability and so prisoners have to ask guards for more, which can lead to more abuse, or buy them from the commissary. Given that 72 percent of women who are in prison were living in poverty before prison, that’s not a great solution.

The FBP also banned shackling women in labor in 2008, but still shackles or places pregnant women in solitary, which leads to undue stress and could put both the women and the baby’s life in danger. The prison system is entirely messed up and no bill will fix the underlying problems that are exacerbated behind bars. Think about it: Most women in prison have suffered physical of sexual abuse prior to or after being incarcerated. Many suffer from mental health issues and 60 percent of them have children under the age of 18 years old. Helping them maintain a connection with their families isn’t exactly going over board.

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