She was jailed for losing a pregnancy. Her nightmare could become more common. 

June 5, 2022

By Sam Levin 

On 4 November 2019, TV stations across California blasted Chelsea Becker’s photo on their news editions. The “search was on” for a “troubled” 25-year-old woman wanted for the “murder of her unborn baby”, news anchors said, warning viewers not to approach if they spotted her but to call the authorities.

The next day, Becker was asleep at the home she was staying in when officers with the Hanford police department arrived.

“The officer had a large automatic weapon pointed at me and a K-9 [dog],” Becker, now 28, recalled in a recent interview. “I walked out and surrendered.”

Two months before, Becker had had a stillbirth at a California hospital, losing a baby boy at eight months pregnant. The King’s county prosecutor in the central valley charged her with “murder of a human fetus”, alleging she had acted with “malice” because she had been struggling with drug addiction and the hospital reported meth in her system.

Becker’s attorneys argued there was no evidence that substance use caused the stillbirth and California law did not allow for this type of prosecution in the first place. Still, she spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial before a judge dismissed the charges.

Becker’s nightmare offers a preview of the kinds of criminal cases that could become commonplace in the US if the supreme court, as expected after the leak of a draft opinion last month, officially overturns Roe v Wade. In the states that outlaw abortion, advocates warn, pregnancy losses more broadly will be treated as potential crimes, including in cases of wanted pregnancies. Even with Roe in effect, women have repeatedly faced arrest and charges for their pregnancy outcomes.

“These prosecutions will escalate at an extremely rapid clip if Roe is reversed,” said Emma Roth, staff attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), a non-profit group that supported Becker in her legal battle. “A lot of people don’t realize that pregnant people are already facing criminalization all across the country, including in blue states like California. All it takes is a rogue district attorney.”

‘Why did the hospital call police?’

Becker grew up in an agricultural region 200 miles north-west of Los Angeles. The area has an unemployment rate twice the California average, and more than 15% of its residents live in poverty. Authorities say it has long been a hub for meth distribution, and access to drug rehabilitation, reproductive healthcare and other services is limited.

Becker had struggled with addiction and at the time of her stillbirth was also battling homelessness, occasionally forced to sleep on a motel stairwell.

On 9 September 2019, she had been preparing for the birth of her fourth child, a baby boy whom she had already named, when her family had to call an ambulance to rush her to the hospital.

She was uncontrollably bleeding when she arrived at the Adventist Health Hanford hospital, a faith-based organization, and roughly two hours later lost the child.

Staff treated her with suspicion, Becker said. Her mother learned before her that the baby had not survived, Becker recalled in an email interview. “I was in shock, physically from the blood loss and mentally from the news,” she said.

She briefly held her baby, she said, and wondered whether he could have survived if the hospital had done an emergency C-section. She also wondered why she received blood transfusions only hours after she had arrived in distress.

The next morning, she said, she discovered that the hospital had left her baby on a table at the other end of the room for hours on end. She also learned that hospital staff had called the police.

“Why the hospital staff called the police to take my baby away is still so troubling. That image of me lying in the hospital bed with my deceased son left on a table, seemingly abandoned, is an image I will never forget,” she said.

‘I suffered alone’

Police records show that hospital staff reported the stillbirth as “suspicious” to police and found Becker tested positive for meth, though her attorneys say she never consented to a drug test.

Later, Becker agreed to meet police at her mother’s house where an officer interrogated her about her drug use. The police recommended she be prosecuted for murder, and weeks later, took her to jail.

Becker was prosecuted by the Kings county district attorney, Keith Fagundes, the only prosecutor in California who has filed charges for a stillbirth in the last three decades. The year before, Fagundes had also filed a murder case against Adora Perez, after she delivered a stillborn baby at the same hospital in Hanford and police also alleged that meth use had caused the loss.

Becker awaited trial in jail while struggling to process her grief. Behind bars, she was unable to receive proper counseling, she said in a recent statement to lawmakers: “I was afraid anything I might have said to any of them would be used against me in court, so I suffered alone.”

While in jail, she lost custody of her son, who was adopted. Her two other children were already in the custody of a relative.

Becker was prosecuted under Section 187 of the California penal code, which defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”. Lawmakers added “fetus” to the statute in 1970 in response to the case of a man who had attacked a pregnant woman, causing a stillbirth. The law does not apply to an act “consented to by the mother of the fetus”, and the primary author of the legislation, a Republican lawmaker, later testified that the mention of fetus was solely intended for prosecuting “a third party’s willful assault on a pregnant woman”.

But Fagundes, and the police officials who investigated Perez and Becker, have used it to argue that women, in some cases, should be jailed.

Becker’s lawyers argued that she could not legally be prosecuted under Section 187. They also noted that at the time of the stillbirth, Becker had three separate reproductive infections, all of which can cause stillbirth. The pathologist who concluded Becker’s stillbirth was due to “acute methamphetamine toxicity” admitted in court that he was not aware of the infections when he conducted the autopsy and had not reviewed her medical records before his determination.

A judge dismissed the case in May 2021.

Adora Perez, the other woman prosecuted by Fagundes, spent four years behind bars before her case was dismissed earlier this year.

“The DA’s extraordinarily broad and very dangerous interpretation of the statute means that if a woman does any kind of activity that could be considered reckless while she’s pregnant, and she loses her fetus, she’s up for murder,” said Mary McNamara, Perez’s lawyer. “If she works at a dangerous factory while she’s pregnant and loses her child, that’s murder. If she is ill and needs cancer treatment that could harm her fetus, that’s murder.”

‘Women are afraid to seek help’

Although Becker’s case was unusual in California, it is not unique in the US.

The 1973 Roe decision established the constitutional right to abortion. But NAPW has tracked more than 1,700 cases between 1973 and 2020 in which pregnant people have been criminalized often based on the notion of “fetal personhood” – that a fetus is, in effect, a person with rights. That estimate, probably an undercount, includes a wide range of cases in which pregnant people faced arrest, prosecution or other criminal or civil consequences based on some action or behavior that law enforcement claimed caused harm to the fetus.

Pregnant women have been criminalized for falling down stairs; giving birth at home; exposing a fetus to dangerous “fumes”; having HIV; not resting enough during the pregnancy; not getting to a hospital fast enough while in labor; being the victim of a shooting; and self-inducing an abortion.

“Once prosecutors decide they want to punish somebody for ending a pregnancy, they will figure out a way to do so,” said Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director of If/When/How, a reproductive justice group.

Substance use is one of the most common allegations, with mothers facing charges even when there’s no evidence of harm to the fetus and in some instances, even after they have given birth to a healthy baby.

Two physician experts testified that Becker’s arrest was rooted in “medical misinformation” and that the claims that meth use causes stillbirths were unfounded. At least 20% of all pregnancies in the US end in miscarriages and stillbirths, often with unknown causes, the doctors wrote, and if the courts treat stillbirths as potential crimes, it will require a dramatic expansion of the role of law enforcement in pregnancy.

A coalition of major medical associations, public health and reproductive rights groups also filed a brief supporting Becker, noting the research consensus that the threat of prosecutions does not protect pregnancies, but rather endangers them by leading people to avoid care. “It is in no way pro-life or in the interest of the health of a fetus that we criminalize the negative outcomes of pregnancy,” added Jacqueline Goodman, one of Becker’s attorneys.

Becker said women who are addicted and pregnant are afraid to seek help, whether in the form of drug treatment or prenatal care. “Women wonder, ‘How can I fix this on my own without anyone else finding out, and in time before the baby comes?’” Becker said. “And many times, as we have seen, it’s much too difficult a battle to fight alone, and many women are unable to kick their addiction by themselves without professional help.”

The fight to protect others

When Becker’s case was dismissed last year, she was in the middle of completing a drug treatment program. “There was a small part of me that said, ‘I don’t have to be here any more. I can leave and go home, and nothing will happen to me.’ But I knew better than to abandon that commitment,” Becker recalled.

After completing treatment, she enrolled in college and is now working toward a community health worker certificate and public health degree.

She also recently advocated for state legislation meant to explicitly block these kinds of prosecutions.

“I hope that in the future, no woman will ever be prosecuted for losing a pregnancy,” she told legislators. “I was punished for something that could have happened to anybody.”

Brian Johnson, an Adventist Health spokesperson, declined to comment on Becker’s case, but said it was hospital policy to notify the coroner’s office in a stillbirth after 20 weeks, and that it follows reporting requirements of child protective services.

The Hanford police department did not respond to inquiries.

Fagundes, the prosecutor, dismissed the medical associations’ arguments as a “political position”.. He said he could not cite research to support his claims that prosecution was the right approach to addiction, but noted that the women did not use drugs behind bars.

Asked why he was the only DA in the state prosecuting women for stillbirths, he said, “Others are fearful of the liberal media machine, the attorney general and the governor and our legislature.”

He added he could in the future refile cases against Becker and Perez, but said he had no immediate plans to do so. “It really depends on how these two women proceed in life. If they’re successful and sober and don’t harm more children, then they probably deserve some credit for that,” he said.

DV and LWOP Survivor Marisela Andrade testifies at Immigration Hearing.

6/16/22 UPDATE

Marisela Andrade maintained her dignity, courage, and strength during a grueling 4-hour immigration court hearing on June 15, 2022. With more than 50 community supporters on the phone, Marisela made her case for asylum based on the Conventions Against Torture (CAT) and then was questioned by Immigration Judge Elizabeth McGrail and Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney Matt Richardson. Marisela then presented her two witnesses: Jaime Leyva, a case manager with Community Justice Center in Fresno, CA; and Dr. Susan Wilde, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, CA, with experience working with DV and Human Trafficking survivors.

While the DHS attorney asserted that he did not think Marisela successfully met the ‘burden of proof’, Judge McGrail said she needed to deliberate and will provide a written ruling in 2 to 3 weeks. She acknowledged the strong representation Marisela provided for herself, and the impressive community support she has. Judge McGrail asked Mari if she wished to speak to her community supporters. Marisela told us, “I love you all and appreciate that you are here. I know I am not standing alone.”

DV and LWOP Survivor Marisela Andrade handed over to ICE!!

Early in the morning on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, the California Dept. Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr) transferred CCWP member Marisela Andrade over to ICE agents instead of releasing her on parole.

Marisela, a survivor of domestic violence and a LWOP sentence, was expected to be released on Sunday, Dec. 5th, from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla after more than 14 years in prison. Friends and supporters were ready to pick her up and help her get to the Fresno Reentry program she was assigned to. Instead, CDCr cruelly handed her over to ICE. She was held overnight in a temporary ICE detention center in Fresno that had no beds or decent sanitation facilities.

Marisela is now in Aurora, CO, where our compañeras Patti Waller Medina and Gabi Solano were also held. Her immigration attorney will be filing a Release Order in the hope we can bring her home to CA to continue fighting for legal status in the US.

We must pass the Vision Act (AB 937)! This would prevent the cruel double punishment of all people who have completed their sentence or are released on parole from facing detention and deportation.

#STOP ICE   #Pass The Vision Act!


     Marisela Andrade De Zarate                                                             A#074-816-783
     Aurora ICE Processing Center
     3130 North Oakland Street, Aurora, CO 80010
     (303) 361-6612



Caring Collectively for People
in Women’s Prisons

We monitor and challenge the abusive conditions inside California women’s prisons.

We fight for the release of women and trans prisoners.

We support women and trans people in their process of re-entering the community.


And… thank you to everyone who joined our special virtual event honoring founding CCWP member, Charisse Shumate!
Watch the event recording here.
Learn more about Charisse and her life’s work here.


When a Miscarriage Becomes a Jail Sentence

Oct 21, 2021, 10:00am Caroline Reilly

National Advocates for Pregnant Women painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted around the country for a miscarriage.

The criminalization of Brittney Poolaw’s pregnancy forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious.

In January 2020, then-19-year-old Brittney Poolaw was pregnant and needed urgent medical care. She called 911 and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was having a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

Two months later, she was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter under Oklahoma law. Earlier this month—after spending 18 months in jail because she could not afford her $20,000 bond—Poolaw, now 21, was sentenced to four years in prison for her pregnancy loss. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), which represents Poolaw, say this case is not an outlier—it’s one of over 1,000 such cases across the country in recent years.

The criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes—arresting, charging, and incarcerating pregnant people for miscarriages and stillbirths—might seem dystopian, like a plot point from a horror or sci-fi movie. Occasionally, cases like Poolaw’s make national headlines and are rightly judged as ghastly violations of human rights and autonomy. But that laser focus on individual cases can give the impression that these are isolated incidents.

They are not.

NAPW say cases like Poolaw’s have been on the rise in recent years. According to their analysis, from 1973 to 2005 there were at least 413 cases in which a woman’s pregnancy or pregnancy outcome was a determinative factor in her loss of liberty. Since 2005 that number has tripled to over 1,200, indicating a rapid escalation of these types of arrests.

This is despite every major medical organization in the country opposing the use of the legal system to penalize pregnancy loss, and despite studies showing that criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes may actually deter pregnant people from seeking medical care, which in turn puts them and their pregnancies at greater risk.

Speaking to Rewire News Group, Dana Sussman, NAPW’s deputy executive director, and NAPW staff attorney Cassandra Kelly painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted for charges involving fetal demise. This is happening across the country, in states like Wisconsin, Alabama, and California; for the latter, they cited the cases of Chelsea Becker, who spent over a year incarcerated after being charged with murder for experiencing a stillbirth, and Adora Perez, who is serving an 11-year sentence for a similar charge.

An even more radical framework for criminalizing miscarriage

Describing Poolaw’s case, Sussman said, “I’m not sure if I have the words to describe frankly how problematic this case has been from start to finish.”

Prosecutors argued that Poolaw’s drug use was to blame for her pregnancy loss. When she sought medical attention for her miscarriage, she told hospital staff that she had used meth and marijuana. The medical examiner’s report listed maternal meth use as a contributing factor to fetal demise, but didn’t determine it was directly responsible. And even an OB-GYN testifying for the prosecution said that while drug use can have an effect on pregnancy, it’s unclear what caused the miscarriage in this case.

Under Oklahoma law, manslaughter and murder laws can be applied to a viable fetus, as can child abuse and neglect laws. But Poolaw’s miscarriage occured when she was 17 weeks pregnant, long before a fetus reaches viability. NAPW advocates say Poolaw’s case is one of the earliest they’ve seen; by prosecuting a pre-viability miscarriage as manslaughter, Oklahoma prosecutors are pushing the law’s bounds, indicating a shift toward an even more radical framework for criminalizing pregnancy loss.

NAPW is a nonprofit organization that does pro bono criminal defense, advocacy, public education, and organizing around the criminalization of pregnancy loss.

The particulars of Poolaw’s case are a web of legal booby traps. “There has to be a causal link when we’re talking about manslaughter,” Sussman said. “In Brittney’s case, it was ‘possession of an illegal substance.’ Of course, possession on its own, even by their framing, wouldn’t cause fetal demise. It’s the consumption, but in Oklahoma, from what we understand, possession has essentially been construed as also covering consumption.”

What we see happening with the criminalization of pregnancy loss is not unlike what we see with the increasingly volatile state of abortion access in the country. Lawmakers and prosecutors start by encroaching on the bodily autonomy of pregnant people in a way they know will be most palatable to society. They target circumstances most fraught with stigma and taboo: later abortion bans, restrictions on young people accessing abortion, criminalization of drug use during pregnancy. But Sussman says they will not stop there.

It comes down to prosecutors claiming the pregnant person put the fetus at “risk of harm,” she said, a measure of liability with drastic potential for expansion.

“We’ve tracked all cases that we can find in which someone has been arrested and/or prosecuted or experienced another deprivation of liberty in relation to their pregnancy, and the vast majority of those cases involve drug use,” Sussman said. “It’s not all though. So, we do see cases where someone fell down a flight of stairs and was charged with some criminal allegation creating a risk of harm to the fetus.”

But NAPW wants to make clear that pushing back against the criminalization of pregnancy loss isn’t about viability or substance use; pointing out these legal intricacies is not to concede that viability or the pregnant person’s behavior should be used to determine whether manslaughter or other criminal charges are appropriate.

Instead, NAPW staff stress that the criminalization of any pregnancy loss is wrong. If lawmakers and prosecutors intended to stop with cases involving post-viability pregnancies, or miscarriages involving allegations of drug use, that would still warrant the abject horror that Poolaw’s case has been greeted with.

“It is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

A critical part of this case is Poolaw’s Indigenous background—she is a member of Comanche Nation; the history of the criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes is, unsurprisingly, deeply rooted in racism and classism.

“So much of this has its tentacles in the ‘crack baby’ obsession in the ‘80s and ‘90s targeting poor Black women,” Sussman said. She cites a 1989 policy in which the Medical University of South Carolina entered into an agreement with local law enforcement to surreptitiously drug test and report pregnant women, so that police could arrest them days and sometimes just hours after giving birth. The population that the hospital was serving at the time was predominantly Black and lower income.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the policy in court:

Some women were taken to jail while still bleeding from giving birth. Others were arrested and jailed while they were pregnant, even though the prison could not provide prenatal care or drug treatment. When the incarcerated women went into labor, they were returned to the hospital in shackles. One woman was handcuffed to her bed throughout her delivery.

The Supreme Court heard the Center’s challenge to the policy and, in 2001, ruled in their favor. But the same type of disparate impact remains the reality of criminalized adverse pregnancy outcomes today. Sussman stresses that cases like Poolaw’s will affect marginalized pregnant people most—Black, trans and nonbinary, disabled, undocumented, and lower income pregnant people are all at an increased risk of having their pregnancy losses criminalized.

“We all know that pregnancy is grossly understudied and there’s so much still unknown,” Sussman says. “Exercising too vigorously, going downhill skiing, a lot of things [involve risk], but because of the war on drugs and because of racism and because of classism and lots of other things, the focus has been disproportionately on drug use. But it is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

Criminalization of pregnancy loss is rapidly expanding in scope, in ways that continue to target marginalized people. Sussman said NAPW is now seeing cases where a pregnant person faces allegations of lack of prenatal care as part of a larger charge. This is particularly insidious considering which communities lack access to proper prenatal care, and the fact that for low-income families, accessing prenatal care means interacting with a state system that has the potential to surveil them, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to prosecution if they experience pregnancy loss. NAPW is even starting to see cases where parents of newborns become ensnared in the legal system for allegations of drug use during breastfeeding.

Poolaw’s case forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious. As Texas SB 8, which bans nearly all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, dominates headlines, it’s critical to understand how criminalizing abortion and criminalizing pregnancy loss intersect. Conservatives in Texas have been quick to assure voters that pregnant people themselves cannot be charged under the anti-abortion law, but the reality is that pregnant people around the country are already being charged for not carrying a pregnancy to term. And while medication abortion is safe and effective, an increased demand for it presents unique challenges to populations of pregnant people who are more likely to have their pregnancy losses criminalized.

The increasing criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes also speaks to a deep-seated stigma and taboo surrounding miscarriage and infertility.

“It’s premised on this false notion that everyone can guarantee a healthy pregnancy and that it is somehow your failure, your incapacity, your fault, something you did or something you didn’t do, that caused the pregnancy loss,” Sussman said.

“We of course know how common pregnancy loss is and how it’s been really sort of understudied, as so many sort of health issues that predominantly affect women are, and thinking about sort of all of the economic, social, structural reasons why people might experience pregnancy loss … And yet here we are holding women criminally liable when they can’t guarantee a healthy pregnancy.”

Sussman said Poolaw now has a short window of time to decide whether to appeal. Four years is the minimum sentence for manslaughter in Oklahoma, and she could have gotten life in prison, Sussman said.

“I think she has been through a deeply, deeply traumatic experience,” Sussman said. “It’s trauma layered upon trauma. And so we’re going to be driven by what she wants. But regardless of what decision she makes, it’s not the end of our fight in Oklahoma because more cases are coming.”

New Report Looks at Strategies to Cut Incarceration of Illinois Women by Half


Victoria Law
April 29, 2021

Colette Payne (right) speaks at the annual Mother’s Day vigil, organized by Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, outside Cook County Jail in Chicago. Payne and other organizers at the Women’s Justice Institute released a report detailing the impact of incarceration on women and explaining how to dramatically reduce the Illinois women’s prison population. SARAH-JI

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women incarcerated across the United States increased by 700 percent. In Illinois, women’s incarceration increased by 767 percent during that same time period. While that number has slowly decreased over the past two decades, the 1,418 women in the state’s prisons at the end of 2020 is still more than quadruple the 401 women imprisoned in 1980. (These numbers only include people in Illinois’s “women’s prisons;” they exclude people in women’s jails and trans women in men’s jails and prisons.)

In July 2018, the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI), a Chicago-based nonprofit, convened a Women’s Justice Task Force to create strategies to reduce the state’s women’s prison population by at least 50 percent.

Halving the women’s prison population may not be as difficult as some might imagine. In 2020, as COVID-19 swept the nation, arrests decreased, courts came to a standstill and jails stopped sending many people to prisons after sentencing. Admissions to Illinois’s women’s prisons fell by nearly 50 percent, decreasing the number of women in prison by over 37 percent from 2,264 in December 2019 to 1,418 one year later.

The Task Force’s new report, “Redefining the Narrative,” not only highlights the realities of women’s incarceration, but also charts ways to halve the state’s female prison population, reduce the harms caused by current policies, and improve the lives of women, children, families and communities most devastated by mass incarceration. While its scope is limited to Illinois, the report reflects the reality of women’s incarceration nationwide.

The Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

Women of color experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence than their white counterparts. An estimated 4 in 10 Black women have experienced intimate partner violence. They are more than twice as likely to be killed by their partner than white women. At the same time, Black women are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated and, in many cases, their experiences of abuse are ignored or disbelieved.

The WJI report includes the experiences of Black women who have experienced both domestic violence and incarceration, like Paris Knox and Tewkunzi Green. In 2007, Knox was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years after defending herself from her ex-boyfriend’s attack. She spent 13 years in prison before her conviction was vacated for ineffective legal counsel, thanks to the long-term work of organizers. In February 2018, she pled guilty to second-degree murder, was given time served and released from prison. In 2009, Green was convicted after defending herself from a boyfriend’s assault and sentenced to 34 years in prison. In November 2020, under sustained pressure from organizers to free Green, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted her clemency and she was released from prison.

Even when abuse has not directly contributed to the criminalized action, women with histories of abuse and neglect are 77 percent more likely to be arrested than those without those histories. A survey at Logan Correctional Center, Illinois’s largest women’s prison, found that more than 99 percent of those surveyed had experienced abuse and intimidation during their lives.

The entanglement of gender-based violence and incarceration is not limited to Illinois. Across the country, 86 percent of women in jails reported experiencing sexual violence; 77 percent also reported having experienced partner violence.

In a handful of states, lawmakers, at the urging of advocates, are considering or passing laws allowing survivors of gender-based violence a second chance. In 2015, Illinois passed the Corrections-Mitigating Factor Act, allowing abuse survivors to petition for resentencing if evidence of their abuse was not introduced during sentencing. Since then, only two women have been released from prison under the new statute. The WJI report notes that other women’s petitions have been rejected under the erroneous assumption that the law is not retroactive. It recommends that the law’s language be clarified and that those whose petitions had previously been denied have the chance to refile.

In 2019, after nearly a decade of advocacy, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, allowing judges to consider the role of abuse in sentencing and, for those already sentenced, the opportunity for resentencing. Since the law was passed, two women were convicted in the deaths of their boyfriends. Both petitioned to have abuse considered at sentencing as directed by the new law. In both cases, the judges denied to consider abuse under the new law and sentenced them to prison.

As of March 2021, several dozen women who had been sentenced in previous years have applied for resentencing. Ten have been resentenced: four were released from prison, while the remaining six, who had already been released from prison, were able to have their post-prison supervision shortened. Others, however, have had their applications for resentencing denied and remain imprisoned.

Organizers in other states have pushed for similar bills, allowing judges to consider the role that domestic violence played when sentencing survivors, but most have yet to see success. In Oklahoma and Oregon, similar bills failed. In California, a similar bill is winding its way through legislative committees.

In courts across the country, prosecutors decide which charges to pursue or dismiss. In Cook County, Illinois, after urging from advocates, the state attorney’s office reduced charges against one abuse survivor and dismissed charges against another. The “Redefining the Narrative” report recommends that state actors, such as prosecutors and courts, utilize their power to reduce or dismiss charges. It also recommends the creation and funding of diversion services for survivors of gender-based violence as well as changes to laws that currently punish them for defending themselves or engaging in criminalized actions under the coercion of abusive partners.

“There Is All This Talk About the #MeToo Movement, But Who Is Fighting for Us?”

When she was 18 years old, Celia Colón was sexually assaulted while in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Terrified and without a support system, she did not report the assault. “Who was going to believe me, someone in a jail cell, vs. an officer?” Colón said. “The answer was no one.”

Twenty-five years later, incarcerated women are still often dismissed when they come forward about sexual violence and misconduct. Logan Correctional Center had 115 reported cases of sexual misconduct between 2015 and 2017; only five of those claims were determined to be substantiated. A lack of substantiation does not mean that an assault did not occur; it simply indicates that investigators report that they did not find enough evidence to determine whether it occurred.

The lack of substantiation isn’t limited to Illinois. Nationwide, of the 24,661 reports of sexual victimization in prisons in 2015, only 1,473 (less than 6 percent) were determined to be substantiated by prison authorities. Between 2012 and 2015, there were 67,168 reports of sexual victimization; prison authorities completed investigations for 61,316 and found 5,187 (8 percent) to be substantiated. (These are the latest data available from the Department of Justice.)

A 2019 survey at New York’s largest women’s prison, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, found that 74 percent of women surveyed had witnessed violence or abuse by staff; 53 percent had personally experienced staff violence or abuse.

Colón has been out of prison for over 20 years and, as the founder of Giving Others Dreams, facilitates mental health workshops for those currently in the jail. (Like other programs, the workshops are paused because of the coronavirus.) But, because she did not report the assault, she still encounters disbelief and skepticism when she shares her story. “There is all this talk about the #MeToo movement, but who is fighting for us?” she asked.

That’s what Tracey Nadirah Shaw, a 52-year-old incarcerated in Pennsylvania, wants to know. Shaw entered prison in 1996. Shortly after, she says she was heading to the evening meal when a prison officer instructed her to follow him to the basement. There, he raped her.

Like Colón, Shaw did not report the rape, explaining that not only did she have to see him daily, but also, the officer had threatened to hurt her family if she said anything about what happened. The rapes continued for four years, stopping only after Shaw was moved to a different housing unit.

Seven years later, in 2013, she learned that the officer was applying to become the manager of her unit. This time, she contacted her family and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an outside monitoring agency. She also reported his assaults. In response, she was transferred from the prison at Muncy, a two-hour drive from her family in Philadelphia, to Cambridge Springs, a six-hour drive across the state. She was later told that prison investigators dismissed her claims as not only unfounded but, because so much time had elapsed, frivolous. “I can tell you there is nothing frivolous about being raped,” she wrote in a letter to Truthout.

The majority of people in women’s prisons have experienced sexual violence before arrest. Once in prison, they often face even more. Even when they are not overtly sexually assaulted, prison policies, such as strip searches and invasive pat-down searches, can be retraumatizing.

The Women’s Justice Task Force report recommends that prisons provide a safe and confidential way for women to report sexual abuse and other harmful conditions. This includes the creation of an independent ombudsman as well as a greater number of phones and kiosks so that women can report without being overheard. The report also recommends overhauling strip search policies and the creation of a statewide task force to create a plan to eliminate sexual assault and staff misconduct in jails and prisons.

“Moms and Babies Won’t Stop Needing to Be Together After the Pandemic Is Over”

Across the country, approximately 1.5 million children currently have a parent behind bars. Illinois ranks sixth in the nation, with one of every 20 children having experienced parental incarceration. Some were born while their parent was incarcerated; one was even born on the floor of the prison shower after medical and prison staff dismissed a woman’s labor pains. Between 2016 and 2018, 94 babies were born in Illinois prisons.

Illinois is one of seven states with a prison nursery, where incarcerated mothers can spend up to two years with their newborns. But the state’s Moms and Babies program has only eight slots and, though Illinois prisons incarcerate an average of 30 pregnant people each year, the program has rarely filled more than half of those slots in recent years. Admission requirements are strict — women must be convicted of a nonviolent offense, not have a history of child welfare involvement, and not have objections from the baby’s other parent or other immediate family members. Women who have outstanding warrants because they failed to pay past fines and fees can also be denied entry to the program. The program stipulates that mothers must be within two years of release, but mothers who are close to release, like Emily French who had two months remaining on her sentence, might be denied as well.

In March 2020, as COVID began exploding throughout the nation’s prisons, Illinois released the five mother-baby duos and one pregnant person in its Moms and Babies program as well as nearly all of the 17 pregnant people in its pregnancy unit. Danielle, who was only identified by her first name in the report, was able to give birth outside prison after being released from the pregnancy unit. She reflected, “I have to wonder, if we could release all of the pregnant women to be with their babies because of the pandemic, why can’t we do it all of the time? Moms and babies won’t stop needing to be together after the pandemic is over.” The Moms and Babies program remains empty though the prison has started accepting newly sentenced people, including those who are pregnant.

New York also has a prison nursery program which can hold 27 mother-baby duos, at its Bedford Hills prison. At the start of the pandemic, officials released nearly all of the mothers and babies. One year later, however, its prisons began accepting new arrivals, including pregnant people and new mothers into its nursery program. COVID soon followed, with 108 women testing positive at Bedford Hills by mid-April, including at least two mothers and three babies in its nursery.

“Redefining the Narrative” is filled with recommendations to halve the state’s female prison population and strengthen individuals, families and communities.

Illinois actually has two laws that could allow for rapid decarceration of its women’s prisons. The 1998 Women’s and Children’s Pre-release Community Supervision Program Act directs the state to establish a community-based program allowing mothers and their young children to live together outside of prison. The directive has been underutilized, according to the report: Only one program, the Women’s Treatment Center in Chicago, has been contracted and has received only three women from prison during a four-year period.

The other law, the 2019 Children’s Best Interest Act, requires courts to consider the impact of imprisoning a parent or caregiver in sentencing them for a nonviolent felony. That year, approximately 947 imprisoned mothers might have qualified. But the law, which went into effect in January 2020, is not retroactiveIf it was, sending even 10 percent of these mothers to a community-based program would reduce the prison population by 101; 25 percent would mean a reduction of 253 in the prison population.

The report recommends expanding the 1998 law, including contracting with more community-based programs and approving more mothers to enter these programs. It also recommends the statewide implementation of the Children’s Best Interest Act, which would not only decrease the numbers in women’s prisons, but also prevent the separation of children and parents.

The recommendations don’t stop inside prisons. They also include strengthening resources outside of prisons and in communities, including access to safe and affordable housing, an end to gendered pay inequality, affordable child care, accessible health and mental health care, and paid family and medical leave. “Redefining the Narrative” recommends investing in resources that prevent gender-based violence, from age-appropriate education about consent and violence prevention for children to programs that support people who have engaged in such violence, and greater services and supports for those who have experienced this violence.

“Decarceration work cannot occur by exclusively addressing risk factors,” the report states. “Rather, it must focus on building the protective factors that must exist for women — before, during and after their criminal justice involvement and incarceration — to prevent their system contact and entrenchment.”

As Willette Benford, who spent over two decades in prison and now works as a decarceration organizer with LiveFree Illinois, an organization working to end mass incarceration and gun violence, said, “Keeping women in prison does not keep us safe.”

Highlights from CURB’s People’s Plan for Prison Closure

Black and vulnerable communities have been ‘disappeared’ into California’s prisons for forty years. The price of this social abandonment is of course incalculable. How can we begin to address racism in America with a response that is anything less than unapologetically bold? Closing ten prisons in five years would be a truly bold step toward accountability and racial justice in the interest of public health.

Accomplishing our goal of closing ten prisons in five years will be hard. It will require political courage. But history is watching us, and waiting for California to finally address what are the most significant moral and ethical issues of our time. California sentences one in four women to life in prison, which is a higher proportion of women serving life sentences than anywhere else in the country.

The case for closing all women’s prisons is articulated through the lived experience of formerly and currently incarcerated women, TGI folks and their allies. It will be articulated further in CURB’s forthcoming report (2021-22) calling for the closure of all women’s prisons in California. We know that people in women’s prisons can be incredible community builders who can follow paths to wholeness–when and if they receive the respect and support they deserve. Isn’t that what all people need? If we can imagine a world without women’s prisons, what else could we achieve with a deeper shift in thinking? We hope The People’s Plan for Prison Closure sparks such a shift. 

From CURB: The People’s Plan for Prison Closure is a visionary roadmap detailing:

  • Ten prisons directly impacted people prioritized for closure, and why
  • An analysis of cost-savings to be captured and reinvested in prison-adjacent communities. 
  • Data-driven information about the roles racism and draconian sentencing continue to play in both prison expansion and overcrowding
  • The case for closing all women’s prisons in California 

Prison abolition will uplift our society’s needs. Cages are used to “solve” problems created by political actors and failed policies. People have intrinsic value that can and must not be so easily discarded. Let’s leave what we know has failed us where it belongs: in the dustbin of our state’s history. It’s time to build a stronger future for California.

CCWP will be working on the CURB report calling for the closure of all women’s prisons in California in the next year!

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