A Republican lawmaker intends to introduce legislation designed to improve the dignity of incarcerated women as the Arizona Department of Corrections plans to reopen a motel-turned-prison to house a continually growing female population.
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said this week he will introduce a bill he’s calling the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” to ensure women behind bars have greater access to sanitary products and bonding time with babies born during their sentences. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has a model policy with an identical name and similar provisions.
Blackman’s comments came a week after he ended his sentencing reform ad hoc committee work by forgetting to schedule a presentation from a subcommittee on women’s issues, and just before another legislative committee approved a request from the Department of Corrections to reopen an additional women’s prison in a former motel in Douglas.
In a party-line vote December 11, the Joint Committee on Capitol Review approved the department’s request to provide up to 340 additional prison beds at Douglas Prison’s Papago Unit, a converted motel that previously housed drunk drivers. Formerly incarcerated women, and their advocates, were not allowed to address legislators during the meeting.
Merissa Hamilton, a former aide for Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio and co-chairwoman of Blackman’s subcommittee on women in prison, said she and other advocates hope their concerns and recommendations will be heard during the next legislative session. Subcommittee members shared an informal survey with women who were previously locked up in the state’s women’s prison, Perryville.
“Women have unique and special needs just by the virtue of us being women,” Hamilton said. “We have unique health needs.”
One of those health needs Blackman intends to address with his bill is providing sufficient feminine hygiene products. Prior to February 2018, the Department of Corrections gave each woman 12 sanitary napkins per month.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, introduced legislation last year to require an unlimited supply of products, including not just sanitary napkins but tampons and reusable products. Following public hassling of Republican lawmakers and testimony from former prisoners, the Department of Corrections changed its internal policy to provide 36 pads, tampons or some combination of the two each month.
However, Blackman said he continues to hear from inmates’ parents and spouses that women don’t receive adequate supplies to manage their periods, either because department officials aren’t providing 36 products a month or because that’s not enough.
“Everybody is different, so I think we need to increase those things,” he said.
Department policy allows women with medical disorders such as endometriosis to receive more products for free, but they first have to confirm those issues in a medical appointment. The subcommittee’s survey found that incarcerated women rated the health care they received at Perryville very poorly.
And Blackman said he has heard stories of inmates not bothering to make medical appointments because waiting lists are too long. This means that despite the new policy, the department hasn’t fixed the underlying issue, he said.
“We have to get involved and force them to do it,” he said. “It’s not a big thing to make sure the law is being carried out.”
Another provision of his bill would require the department to allow women who give birth in prison longer visits with their infants than would normally be allowed. Arizona should be looking to other states that have policies that let women develop and maintain relationships with their new babies, he said.
One example he cited was Tennessee, which allows weekend-long visits. A handful of facilities in other states have full-time prison nurseries, where infants live with their incarcerated mothers, but Blackman said he’s not interested in going that far.
“The baby’s not growing up in prison,” he said. “We’re talking about visitation.”
Women who responded to the subcommittee’s survey cited a need for help in regaining custody of their young children upon release and making visiting easier.
“We know that for children to be able to visit their parents frequently when they’re in prison, they should be incarcerated within 100 miles,” said Hamilton, the subcommittee’s co-chairwoman.
Blackman said he can’t guarantee that his bill — or the women advocating further reforms — will be heard next session. He’s advocating to have his criminal justice bills assigned to multiple committees, a move lawmakers generally oppose because it increases the procedural hurdles legislation faces, just to increase the chances the bills will be heard if not passed.
“God willing that I have an opportunity to come back and serve next term and the speaker sees fit to put me in a position to hear these types of bills,” Blackman said. “The bills that didn’t get heard when we’re talking about criminal justice reform will get heard. Every bill that’s serious enough should have the opportunity to speak for itself and have the members vote yes or no on the merits of the bill.”