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We must extend dignity to pregnant women in prison now

prison-jail-620Imagine you are arrested. As you wait for your trial, in prison, you find out you’re pregnant. Several months later, you carefully walk to the van that will transport you to court. As you climb into the van, you misstep and fall on your stomach. A few days later, you find streaks of blood on your undergarments. You seek medical attention immediately but are denied. Medical staff informs you that they do not have the appropriate medical supplies to treat pregnant inmates.

Now faced with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry’s policy that pregnant inmates must be placed in solitary confinement to protect the wellbeing of the baby, you are led to a 9×9 cell. Alone, scared, and devoid of contact with the outside world, you lay awake at night feeling completely hopeless for you and your unborn child.

One day, you suddenly feel wet and cry out for help. Hours later, correctional staff finally responds, and you finally get medical attention. You are shackled to a bed, writhing in pain. An ultrasound reveals you had a miscarried. Wanting to confirm this, a nurse asks about the location of your bed linens. The correctional officers respond that they’ve thrown the linens – where the body of your unborn child lied – in the trash.

But this is no fictional scenario. This happens to women behind bars every year. Trying to wrap my head around this being my daughter, sister, mother, or wife is unimaginable.

The birth of a child is a special moment to be celebrated – this should be true even for women behind bars. Yet current Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry policies humiliate and endanger incarcerated mothers and their unborn children. If we are genuinely seeking rehabilitation for these women, we must ensure they receive quality care for themselves and the innocent children they are carrying.

Established on the biblical belief that all people are made in God’s image with inherent dignity and potential, reforms need to take a restorative approach to those affected by crime and incarceration.

Refocusing the importance of rehabilitation and transition back to our neighborhoods will make our communities safer and result in fewer victims. Government alone cannot provide all the services that returning offenders need. Instead, the government can partner with a community of supportive organizations that can hold offenders accountable while being patient, nurturing, sacrificial, holistic and able to sustain a genuine long-term commitment to the transformation of offenders and ex-offenders into law-abiding citizens.

I believe Jesus Christ heals broken people and systems. In Matthew 5:13, the Lord calls us to be ‘the salt of the earth.’ As Christians, this should compel us to be of a servant’s heart – to work for justice and righteousness in a society where there are many injustices.

In the Grand Canyon State, there is conservative supported legislation, the Dignity Act, that would:

  • protect pregnant mothers and their unborn child while incarcerated and postpartum
  • provide necessary hygiene products to women who need them; and
  • secure familial bonds for minor children to have access for visiting their primary caretaker

I never want to be remembered for the worst mistake I made. That’s why the Lord brought His Son to die for us all – even those who are behind bars. We are all given a second chance. Therefore, it should be a no-brainer that we give those incarcerated a second chance at life. We’re all redeemable through His eyes.

Arizona isn’t the only state grappling with the unique challenges that women face during confinement. Formerly incarcerated women are bringing these issues to the forefront of state legislatures nationwide, successfully leading the charge for reform in their home states. Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and Mississippi passed significant reforms just this year, and several other states like North Carolina and Missouri are looking to follow suit. Arizona can pass reform that provide pregnant persons and their children dignity, while preserving public safety. I urge our lawmakers to pass the Dignity Act now.

Paul Parisi is the Government Domains Director for 4Tucson. He currently serves the Board of Directors of the Arizona Life Coalition, is a volunteer with the Oro Valley Police Department and is an Ordained Senior Chaplain with the International Fellowship of Chaplains.

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