Mississippi provides hope, and care, for pregnant women in prison

A very important piece of legislation flew under the radar this session and was signed into law just as quietly.

House Bill 196, better known as the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act,” sponsored by Rep. Nick Bain, was created to ensure a basic level of care for pregnant women who are incarcerated. The legislation passed unanimously with little attention, probably because it seemed so obvious.

This bill is part of a national movement seeking to address prison and jail policies that were established for men. As we know, the number of incarcerated women has spiked, and with that, the need for adaptative systems and policies has arisen to ensure that facilities are well equipped to provide adequate resources and address challenges pertaining to their female population. Which can include childbirth.

And that is what this new law does. It sets standards for treatment of women, particularly those who are mothers and mothers-to-be. With this, the state will provide training for staff that interacts with pregnant women, protect pregnant women from invasive searches not performed by qualified healthcare professionals, provide women with various personal care items, and even attempt to house mothers of young children within 250 miles of their families when feasible.

This legislation was not without its own level of shock value. The policy reform that was most highlighted dealt with the banning of pregnant mothers from being shackled during childbirth and for 30 days following. In addition, the newborn will be allowed to remain with the mother for 72 hours following birth, rather than pulling the baby away immediately after birth.

There are currently close to 1,500 female inmates in custody of the Department of Corrections. A 2017 report from the American Public health Association showed that there were 15 births in Mississippi prisons over the course of one year from 2016 to 2017, and 33 pregnant women were admitted during that timeframe.

As the female population continues to rise, Bain was right on time with this legislation. This is good common-sense policy that establishes the dignity for incarcerated women that every woman deserves. This new law acknowledges that fact and recognizes that we have a responsibility to transfer that acknowledgment of basic human dignity to our incarcerated population as well.

This bill protects families and future generations and helps address several questions we should be asking.

Should a young child suffer and be subjected to becoming a negative statistic because they are not allowed the opportunity to still receive a certain level of nurturing from their mother despite her mistakes? Studies show that children with a parent in prison are six to seven times more likely to be incarcerated. This legislation allows for visitation for young children which has been proven to improve self-esteem, cognitive skills, and self-control. A mistake that led to incarceration does not void the relationship between a mother and child that is necessary for the development of the child no matter how non-traditional it may be.

This session’s criminal justice reform efforts have used hope as a recurring theme. How do we make prisons safer? How do we ensure that inmates fully buy in to quality rehabilitation efforts? How can we reacclimate reentering citizens to society, set them up for success, and increase public safety?

The answer to these questions is simply to provide hope.

This is not always an easy task. But in the case of a mother being able to give love to her young child in person, a mother being able to experience the miracle of childbirth without shackles, or make certain that all staff are properly trained to provide the dignity and respect due to a woman and human being, these should be easy decisions.

We know with HB 196 the legislature got it right.

This column appeared in the Daily Journal on May 4, 2021.