Report Finds ‘Shockingly Substandard’ Reproductive Health Care in New York Prisons

The report details numerous violations of the state's anti-shackling law, severely limited access to birth control, lack of trauma-informed clinical care, and a routine denial of basic hygiene items like sanitary napkins and toilet paper.

Members of the Coalition for Women Prisoners attend a rally for New York’s 2009 anti-shackling law. The Correctional Association of New York

damning report released this week by the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York finds that the quality of reproductive health care in the state’s prisons is “shockingly substandard.”

The report details consistent violations of the state’s anti-shackling law, severely limited access to birth control, lack of trauma-informed clinical care, and a routine denial of basic hygiene items like sanitary napkins and toilet paper.

Five years in the making, the report is based on 950 interviews with incarcerated women, data from over 1,550 surveys, expert reviews of medical charts, and 20 visits to prisons housing women in New York.

One woman included in the report is Maria Caraballo, who was more than nine months pregnant when prison guards at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York handcuffed her wrists, shackled her ankles, and drove her to give birth.

Despite a 2009 law in New York banning the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in labor, when Caraballo arrived at the hospital, her wrist was shackled to the bed and remained there during and after delivery. According to Caraballo’s account, her doctor asked that the cuff be removed, but the guards refused.

“I had one hand cuffed to the bed throughout everything: When I was pushing, when I was in pain, when my daughter was actually coming out,” Caraballo told Rewire in a phone interview. “When they finally gave me my daughter, I could only hold her with one hand for a few minutes before they took her away.”

The New York Department of Corrections did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment on the report.

“We called this report Reproductive Injustice because it’s about the full spectrum of women’s rights being violated in prison, including women’s right to parent, women’s right to contraception, and women’s right to safe and dignified childbirth,” Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project and author of the report, told Rewire. “Reproductive health is a basic human right, and prison infringes on that right.”

The population of women in prison has risen sharply over the past three decades. The United States currently incarcerates more women per capita than any other country in the world, according to the report. As more and more women have been locked up, prisons have become one of the largest providers of reproductive health care in the nation.

Higher incarceration rates disproportionately affect women of color; in 2010, Black women were three times as likely to get arrested as white women.

In addition to shackling, the report reveals dozens of other reproductive health-care violations. Women often face long delays in accessing gynecological care behind bars, and dismissive doctors when they are finally seen.

Tina Tinen, another former inmate at Bedford Hills, described how difficult it was to get a birth control prescription at the end of her time in prison.

“When I first get released, I don’t want to be in a danger zone,” she told Rewire. “I want the pill. It’s terrifying that you could have an accidental pregnancy because you can’t secure your birth control before you get released from prison!”

The report is filled with recommendations, from developing trauma-informed care to enforcing the 2009 anti-shackling law.

But the most significant recommendation is to invest in alternatives to incarceration. As Kraft-Stolar says, “The most critical thing that our study suggests is that we need to stop sending women to prison in the first place.”