Utah lawmakers paid more attention to incarcerated women this year

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) State Democratic Rep. Stephanie Pitcher speaks in February at the Utah State Capitol. Pitcher proposed a bill last session that banned shackling incarcerated women during childbirth.

Before this year’s session of the Utah Legislature, only two bills specifically related to incarcerated women had been submitted since 2014. Both were attempts by Rep. Mark Wheatley to secure funding for reproductive health education; both were rejected.

In 2019, three female lawmakers made proposals and two passed.

It may be that having more women in the Statehouse brought new perspectives. It might be a reflection of an increasing national awareness about incarceration issues. Or, it could be purely coincidence.

Reps. Angela Romero, Jennifer Dailey-Provost and Stephanie Pitcher, who raised issues related to incarcerated women last session, said it was probably a combination of these factors.

“We look at the world through a different lens than some of our colleagues,” said Romero, D-Salt Lake City. That’s not necessarily a better lens, she said, but it’s a different perspective.

Pitcher’s bill banned shackling inmates while they give birth. Romero’s appropriation request got the funding that Wheatley, D-Murray, had tried to get in the past. And Dailey-Provost wanted women to be able to stay on their prescribed birth control while in jail.

Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, wrote her bill after she became aware of moves by other states to ban shackling inmates during childbirth. When Pitcher’s bill was signed into law, Utah joined 22 other states that had prohibited the practice.

The number of women held in jails, state prisons and federal facilities has mushroomed nationally, from 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017, according to a report released by The Sentencing Project in June.

Oklahoma recorded the highest rate of incarcerated women, with 157 per 100,000, while Massachusetts had the lowest at nine per 100,000, according to the report. Utah had 32 per 100,000, it said.

Women in the criminal justice system are in “an incredibly vulnerable situation,” said Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. By allowing women in jail to continue to have access to birth control, the lawmaker said, she hoped to help prevent unintended pregnancies after the women are released.

“We can just do so much better by women by not punishing them for the rest of their lives," Dailey-Provost said, such as by helping prevent unplanned pregnancies that affect women long after they are released from jail.

Larry Bench, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Sociology who worked in the criminal justice system for decades, has tried for years to get money to start a reproductive health education program for female inmates. After getting funding through Romero’s appropriation request, the goal is to start the program this fall in the state prison system, he said.

“We just want to give women the information that they need in order to make informed decisions,” Bench said.

While there have been programs for juveniles, Bench said there’s been little research done about how these reproductive health education programs would affect adults, including women.

“It seemed like this would be a step in the right direction of reducing recidivism, reducing unplanned pregnancies, reducing things like sexually transmitted diseases,” Bench said.

Romero said, “For me, it’s so important for people to understand themselves and their bodies but also have access to contraceptives.”

With the program Bench is working on, “this would be an opportunity to provide the education and to provide the resources they need once they leave the penal system,” Romero said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.