As many of you are aware, I have been working on criminal justice reform, particularly as it relates to incarcerated women, for several years. The number of women incarcerated across the country has risen significantly in the last 25 years at a pace twice that rate of men. The number continues to climb while the number of incarcerated men has held steady or declined. In a 2019 report released by the ACLU, 231,000 women were incarcerated in the U.S., making our country first in the world in incarcerating women. Eighty percent of these women are mothers, and most are primary caretakers of their children. There are over 5 million children in the U.S. whose mothers are incarcerated.
Our prison system, here in Virginia, and across the country, was not built to accommodate women and hasn’t changed very much even as the numbers of women inmates has increased substantially.
Just before the last session began I met with a group of recently-released women who wanted to talk to me about the conditions they had experienced while imprisoned. The list of grievances they presented to me was long and detailed. At one point in our conversation I told them that the issues they presented seemed to be overwhelming and asked where I should start. To a women, they said “make menstrual products free and available upon request”.
I took a minute to recover from learning that imprisoned women had to pay for menstrual products; but then agreed to file a bill mandating free menstrual products in prisons and jails in Virginia.
Thanks to my aggressive educational campaign, HB83 passed the House unanimously. Sadly, not unanimous in the Senate, but it did pass. I soon learned that Virginia was the first state in the nation to mandate menstrual products to be provided at no cost!
This year I followed up with HB1648 which mandated specific health support for pregnant inmates and specific training of the correctional officers assigned to work with them. I am pleased to be able to say that this bill passed and will become effective July 1st this year.
When Covid-19 descended upon us, I realized that pregnant inmates, as well as other vulnerable prisoners, would need special protection from the coronavirus. I wrote to the governor on April 15 requesting actions that would provide this protection — from medical co-pays in prison to early release to widespread testing in correctional facilities.
I did not receive a response, but the governor did add language to a Budget Amendment that would allow the Department of Corrections to develop a plan of early release to protect the health of vulnerable prisoners. We passed this Amendment on April 22 at the Reconvene session. I have read the procedures developed and to my dismay, there was no mention of pregnancy or of primary caretaker warranting special attention during this health emergency. I think that more legislation is needed.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]