Mississippi prisons will no longer be able to use restraints on pregnant women or shackle them at any time 30 days after giving birth except in rare circumstances. The change will take effect on July 1 after Gov. Tate Reeves quietly signed the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” into law on April 14.
The law also requires the Department of Corrections to “place inmates who are parents of minor children within two hundred fifty (250) miles of their permanent address of record” and ends restrictions on visitation privileges for minor children of incarcerated women. Under the law, children will be able to visit their mothers “at least twice per week.” The law also requires prisons to provide postpartum care and female hygiene products for indigent inmates.
“Mississippi is moving in the right direction,” said Steven Randle, the director of justice and work for Empower Mississippi, a libertarian-leaning organization that lobbies for criminal justice reform. “This is good common-sense policy that establishes dignity for incarcerated women because every woman deserves that. This new law acknowledges that fact and recognizes that we have a responsibility to transfer that acknowledgment of basic human dignities to our incarcerated population as well.”
‘This Pro-Life Legislation’
The Mississippi law implements many provisions included in a federal “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” that Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced in 2017 and again in 2019. The national bill died in committee both times under the leadership of the former U.S. Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
In the Mississippi Legislature, though, the state-level act passed both Republican-led chambers unanimously during the legislative session after Mississippi House Rep. Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, introduced the bill as its lead sponsor.
Last month, Gov. Reeves held an official ceremony in the Mississippi Capitol to mark the signing of a law banning transgender high school and college athletes from participating on gendered sports teams unless they agree to play with teammates of the opposite sex. But he signed the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in private and has not spoken publicly about the new law.
Rep. Bain, however, celebrated after Empower Mississippi announced that Reeves had signed the bill into law almost three weeks after the House and Senate sent it to his desk.
“Glad to get this pro-life legislation across the finish line,” Rep. Bain tweeted.
Once an incarcerated woman gives birth, the law requires the Department of Corrections to “permit the newborn to remain with the mother for seventy-two (72) hours unless the medical provider has a reasonable belief that remaining with the mother poses a health or safety risk to the newborn” and corrections officials must supply her with products, such as diapers, to care for the newborn.
MDOC must also “develop and provide to all correctional facility employees and correctional officers who have contact with pregnant inmates training related to the physical and mental health of pregnant inmates and fetuses.”
Lawmakers killed a separate legislative proposal that would have helped 25,000 Mississippi mothers keep Medicaid health insurance benefits for a year after giving birth. Currently, Medicaid insurance expires 60 days after birth.
Incarceration Rising for Women
Along with Empower Mississippi, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi also supported the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Bain’s bill borrowed much of its language from model legislation that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that largely focuses on promoting business-friendly bills in states, proposed in 2018. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn sits on ALEC’s board of directors.
“The incarceration rate of women in Mississippi prisons has been on the rise with over 1,500 females in the Mississippi Department of Corrections system,” Empower Mississippi said in an April 16 statement on the new law.
“National research shows that almost 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. Studies also show that children who grow up with incarcerated parents are six to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. Allowing mothers to be in close proximity to their young children and access to visitation can promote good behavior, better post-release outcomes, and reduce recidivism rates.”
Before she was vice president, Kamala Harris was among the U.S. senators who introduced the first federal version of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act.
“The drastic increase in the women’s prison population has destroyed communities, torn families apart and done little to promote public safety,” Harris said in a 2017 statement. “This has also had a deep impact on children. In order to create lasting improvements to public safety we have a responsibility to not only reunite women inmates with their families, but to also support the rehabilitation and re-entry of these women inmates into society.”
The Justice for Incarcerated Moms Act
In February, U.S. House Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat who founded the House Black Maternal Health Caucus, introduced the Justice for Incarcerated Moms Act, a bill that goes farther than either the national “Dignity” bill or the new Mississippi “Dignity” law.
Pressley’s legislation would make states that fail to end the shackling of pregnant inmates, which currently includes around two dozen, ineligible for certain federal funds; fund maternal health programs in federal, state and local prisons and jails; strengthen visitation policies; and give states funding “to set up primary caretaker diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration for pregnant individuals and primary caretakers of minor children.”
“A safe pregnancy should be a right, not a privilege, and every person should be able to experience their pregnancy without worrying if they will survive delivery or make it to their child’s first birthday—including women behind the wall,” the congresswoman said in a Feb. 8 statement.
“The Justice for Incarcerated Moms Act would center the dignity of pregnant people behind the wall by creating systems to protect the health and dignity of incarcerated people and enlist them as partners in our fight for justice and equity.”