Why this Utah lawmaker wants women held in county jails to be able to stay on their prescribed birth control

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City.

If a woman is arrested and taken to a jail in Utah, it’s likely she’ll have access to medications such as a cholesterol pill. But it’s not guaranteed she’ll be able to keep taking her birth control. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, wants to change that and the measure, she says, will help these inmates avoid unwanted pregnancies.

HB275 would require county jails to allow these women the option of continuing any “medically prescribed method of contraception.” Dailey-Provost said this could mean letting women bring in their prescriptions, but the jails would also have an obligation to provide the medication, if necessary.

With the exception of opioids, inmates generally can continue taking needed medication while they are behind bars. Dailey-Provost said birth control should be no different.

“We need to get out of the mindset that jail is punishment. Jail is paying a debt,” Dailey-Provost said. "We can’t punish women [by] increasing their risk of an unintended pregnancy.”

A legislative fiscal analyst estimated that it could cost the counties more than $320,000 yearly to pay for these contraceptives.

Reed Richards, the public affairs director for the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, said that cost is a concern — but added the sheriffs have yet to take a formal position on the bill.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera echoed similar concerns. She said her jail cycles through 5,000 women each year. Some stay as little as one night, but the average stay is 27 days. If Dailey-Provost’s bill became law, Rivera said she worries not just about the price of the medication — but also the extra medical staff that would need to be hired to distribute the medications.

“I like the concept of it,” she said, “but the cost is very significant to the jail. When the jail and the county are responsible for the costs, that makes it really tough on us.”

Currently, jail doctors in Salt Lake County decide on a case-by-case basis who is given access to contraception. In Utah County, contraception is provided if there is a “medical need," Sgt. Spencer Cannon said, such as severe cramping.

Cannon said long-term inmates are not provided birth control, but contraception is provided if an inmate requests it and will soon be released.

“Our director said we get very few requests from female inmates to continue taking, or be placed on, medically prescribed birth control,” Cannon said.

Dailey-Provost’s bill would only apply to the county jails — where the population mostly consists of people who either are awaiting trial or are serving short sentences — not the Utah State Prison. But it’s at the jails, which are used for short-term stays, where it could be most critical for women to have continued access to contraception.

Dailey-Provost said that if women don’t have access to their birth control pills, it affects their hormones and puts them at a greater risk of getting pregnant when they are released. There’s also a risk of a woman becoming pregnant if she had sex before her arrest and then is not able to continue her hormonal birth control once in the jail.

And though it’s not legal, Dailey-Provost added that there are times when male staffers and female inmates have sex in jails.

“Being in a women’s jail does not guarantee that you’re not going to get pregnant,” she said.

California passed a similar bill in 2017, making it the law there that female prisoners have the right to request both contraceptives and family planning services.

Kyl Myers — who is the director of Family Planning Elevated, a program at the University of Utah — has studied contraceptive care for incarcerated women, research which included surveying nearly 200 women who were in the Salt Lake County jail.

She found that just over half had used contraception in the previous year, and 41 percent planned to use some form of birth control once they were released. More than 60 percent were interested in initiating some form of birth control in jail.

Myers noted the majority of women who are incarcerated are of reproductive age and are already mothers. She said most of these women are already marginalized, and many struggle with low incomes, substance use and mental health issues. Becoming unexpectedly pregnant, she said, can complicate their lives further.

“Providing contraception to women in custody does not cost a lot of money, and preventing unintended pregnancies is incredibly cost-effective and frankly, the right thing to do,” she said. “If rehabilitation is actually the goal, helping women avoid unintended pregnancies can certainly help with that.”

Her bill has yet to be the subject of a committee hearing.

Dailey-Provost isn’t the only Utah lawmaker working on the reproductive care of incarcerated women. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, requested funding Monday for a pilot program that would teach reproductive health education to women at the Utah State Prison. During a meeting of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, Romero sought nearly $160,000 to design, implement and evaluate a program for women at the prison.

The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism and unwanted pregnancies.

“For us, it’s about educating,” Romero said. “[We’ve been] meeting on this and talking about how many women who are incarcerated don’t know simple reproductive health matters, even with their own body. This is something we really want to go forward in stopping a cycle.”