Hawaii’s state prison system received poor grades yesterday for its treatment of female prisoners, but improvements are being sought.
Hawaii received an F grade for prenatal care and a D grade for its shackling policies, according to a nationwide study on prison policies for mothers, released yesterday by the National Women’s Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. The state received an overall C- grade.
But the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, the only women’s prison in Hawaii, just began training to make the staff more sensitive to the inmates’ needs and possible prior abuse.
"The timing of this report is unfortunate because there really is an effort under way to improve care," said Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii-Manoa women’s studies professor who is involved with the training. "But it’s also a reminder that this is a really important initiative."
Hawaii did receive an A grade for its family-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The state’s Judiciary often sentences women to prison only after repeat criminal offenses, said Tommy Johnson, deputy director for the state Department of Public Safety.
"It should be noted that the vast majority of the offenders are given the opportunity to remain free in the community on probation," he said. "The average female offender has eight felony convictions before they’re sentenced to prison."
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» National Women’s Law Center: www.nwlc.org
Johnson said the number of female prisoners has averaged 750 for the past five years at the Kailua facility, Oahu Community Correctional Center or in the federal detention center.
The report was critical of the national practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth. But Johnson said shackling means the act of confining the legs, which the state does not do.
Instead, the state handcuffs a wrist to the bed during childbirth as a precaution against escape.
"If the doctor objects for medical purposes, however, then we will not restrain the inmate," he said. "We’ll address it some other way. If it’s a female, there would be a female guard posted."
Chesney-Lind said male inmates’ escapes typically occur during hospital visits.
"You have a prison system that is essentially male-driven," she said. "Policies in correction facilities across America have grown up based on that male problem, so there are all these procedures that have been applied to women without any thought about whether it’s even necessary."
Most states fared poorly on the report. Only one state, Pennsylva-nia, received an overall grade of A. Including Hawaii, 27 states received an F grade for prenatal care.
The report states more than 115,000 were in prison as of 2009, and that figure is rising at a higher rate than that of men since the introduction of mandatory sentencing policies for drug offenses.
About 84 percent of women in Hawaii prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, said Kat Brady, a coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons. Many offenses stem from drug or physical abuse.
Brady is a community advocate for the training initiative at the women’s facility. She said its goal is to help women tell their story, and to help the staff empathize with the inmates’ plight.
"A huge number of our female population is wounded before they even get to prison … their histories of abuse, which leads to drugs," Brady said
The report will be useful to Sue Henson, a personal injury attorney. One of Henson’s clients went through a pregnancy that ended in stillbirth in 2007. The woman, who was 22 at the time and incarcerated for a drug offense, filed a lawsuit against the state.
"This is what I’ve been suspecting all this time," Henson said of the report. "Now I can look into it to see what was in the survey that gave the state a failing grade."
Some of the states disputed the report’s findings, according to a report by the Associated Press. The South Carolina Department of Corrections, which received an overall F grade, said it was misrepresented in the report.
"When the S.C. Department of Corrections receives a pregnant inmate through our courts, she is afforded complete medical and prenatal care," department spokesman Josh Gelinas said.
Jill Morrison, a co-author of the report and the National Women’s Law Center’s senior law counsel, said the report’s purpose was to encourage greater accountability and consistency in how incarcerated mothers are treated.
Morrison said the use of shackles during childbirth has abated in part because of individual women who have taken a stand against the practice after enduring it.