[Pnews] Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Shackling While Pregnant or Sick

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Feb 16 10:24:46 EST 2015

*Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Shackling 
While Pregnant or Sick*

February 16, 2015 by Victoria Law

What does solitary confinement have to do with reproductive justice? 
Quite a lot, says a new report about reproductive health care in New 
York’s women’s prisons. The Correctional Association of New York, a 
criminal justice policy and advocacy organization, released Reproductive 
Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York 
State Prisons. The report is a culmination of the organization’s 
five-year study of the state’s women’s prisons, including in-person 
interviews with over 950 incarcerated women and 1,500 mailed-in surveys.

New York State incarcerates nearly 4,000 women each year. On any given 
day, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Service 
(DOCCS) imprisons 2,300 women, for which it is responsible for providing 
health care, including reproductive health care. But that care is 
“woefully substandard,” charges the report. The Correctional Association 
found that DOCCS systemically offered substandard medical treatment, 
inadequate access to gynecological care, poor conditions for pregnant 
women, and insufficient supplies of feminine hygiene products and toilet 
paper. In addition, pregnant women are routinely shackled during labor, 
delivery, and postpartum recovery, in violation of the state’s 2009 law.

Solitary confinement exacerbates these problems. Approximately 1,600 
people are placed in solitary confinement in New York’s women’s prisons 
each year. On any given day, 100 women are held in solitary confinement. 
Until recently, no exceptions were made for pregnant women. But even 
women who are not pregnant have found that solitary confinement further 
obstructs their ability to access reproductive health care. “Solitary is 
especially dangerous for pregnant women because it impedes access to 
critical OB care and prevents women from getting the regular exercise 
and movement that are vital for a healthy pregnancy,” the report states. 
In addition, many pregnant women already experience stress and 
depression, feelings intensified by isolation. For pregnant women, the 
additional stress of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day lowers 
their ability to fight infection and increases the risk of preterm 
labor, miscarriage, and low birth weight in babies.

Among the women surveyed by the Correctional Association, the three most 
common charges for isolation were, in order, disobeying a direct order, 
creating a disturbance, and being out of place. “It’s one of the 
clearest examples of how the prison system is a system of punishment and 
only uses punishment to address behaviors that need intervention and 
support,” Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association’s 
Women in Prison Project and the author of the report, told Solitary Watch.

DOCCS has two forms of solitary confinement—the Special Housing Unit 
(SHU), which is used to punish more serious rules violations, and 
keeplock, for less serious infractions. People placed in keeplock are 
usually confined to their own cells; if they live in a dorm setting, 
they are sent to a separate keeplock unit. SHU cells are in a separate 
area. In keeplock, individuals are allowed to keep their possessions 
while those in SHU are denied almost all of their property and receive 
only the minimal number of state-issued items. People generally spend no 
more than 60 days in keeplock, whereas people can spend months, years or 
even decades in the SHU.

Whether in SHU or keeplock, people are confined to their cells 23 hours 
each day. They cannot participate in programs, receive packages, or use 
the phone except to make legal or emergency calls. In addition, they are 
limited to one non-legal visit per week and three five to ten minute 
showers per week. They often have difficulty accessing doctors. When 
they are visited by medical staff, they are frequently forced to shout 
their concerns through a locked metal door, allowing people in 
neighboring cells and nearby staff to hear.

Until 2014, no written policy regulated pregnancy and solitary 
confinement. But as part of the settlement for the class-action lawsuit 
Peoples v Fischer, DOCCS issued a memo establishing a “presumption” 
against SHU placement for pregnant women unless a watch commander 
believes she poses “an immediate and substantial risk [to herself or 
others]…or an immediate and substantial threat to the safety and good 
order of the facility,” which remain left to the discretion of prison 
staff and officials. The memo does not restrict pregnant women from 
being placed in keeplock, instead suggesting it as an alternate 
placement for pregnant women who receive a SHU sentence.

The Correctional Association identified seven women held in solitary 
while pregnant between 2009 and 2012. All had problems accessing 
prenatal care from isolation. In one instance, a woman spent four weeks 
in keeplock where her complaints of bleeding were ignored. After the 
Correctional Association intervened, she was given medical attention and 
diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, in which the pregnancy occurs 
outside the womb and, if unaddressed, can be fatal.

“Elle Farah” was pregnant when she arrived at Albion Correctional 
Facility for a work release violation. The week before, she had visited 
the emergency room for what she had thought was a miscarriage. “They 
told me to wait and come back on Friday [two days later] for a sonogram 
and a D&C,” she told Solitary Watch. But work release rules dictated 
that she return to prison on Friday for the weekend and so she missed 
the appointment. When she was released on Sunday, she had a drink. 
“After that, I got sick. I was throwing up. I was throwing up on my way 
to parole [the next day],” she said. At the parole office, she failed 
her breathalyzer test and was sent to Albion. When her vomiting 
continued, she wondered whether she was miscarrying. When she told the 
sergeant that she was pregnant, she recalled that “he was really nasty 
about it. He said, ‘That’s not gonna get you out of SHU.'” The prison 
sent her to an outside hospital where she was told that she was having a 
miscarriage, that doctors could do nothing, and that she simply had to wait.

A prison nurse served as her hearing officer. At one point, Elle 
recalled, he stopped the recorder and told her that he had looked at her 
sonogram and, although she had been told that she was miscarrying, the 
baby looked fine. He then turned the recorder on and sentenced her to 90 
days in SHU. She received no additional medical care or extra food. She 
was able to shower three times a week and exercise by herself in a small 
outdoor cage.

Because Albion has no facilities for pregnant women, Elle was 
transferred to Bedford Hills two weeks later. She was fully shackled, 
including waist chains, for the entire ten-hour bus ride. When she 
arrived at Bedford, she was placed in SHU. “Even though I was in 
solitary in both places, I was happy to go from one solitary to another 
because Bedford’s was a little bit better,” she said. But even with the 
extra snack that Bedford provides pregnant women (“usually a bologna 
sandwich,” she recalled, although pregnant women are advised to avoid 
deli meats which can be life-threatening to a fetus), she remembered 
that she was always hungry. “I had to wait a long time to eat and there 
wasn’t a lot of healthy food.”

Even women who are not pregnant face reproductive injustices while in 
isolation. Donna Hylton was in the SHU at Bedford Hills for three months 
when she sought care for a burning sensation in her urethra. First, she 
had to tell the officer that she wanted to sign up for sick call. “You 
have to yell your business down a corridor full of women,” she 
explained. Hours later, a male officer arrived and asked, “Who signed up 
for sick call? Why do you want to sign up for sick call?” The response, 
Hyton remembered, “felt like a gross violation of my privacy.”

Two days later, a nurse, accompanied by two officers, stopped in front 
of her cell and spoke to Hylton through the closed door. Two weeks after 
that, Hylton was placed in handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a waist chain 
before being escorted to the prison’s medical unit. There, a nurse asked 
if she had been having sex. “The door was open and a sergeant was right 
outside,” she remembered. “There was no privacy.” Another week passed 
before she was once again shackled and brought to the gynecologist, who 
asked the same question about sex. He did not examine her before 
prescribing Tylenol.

Finally, the woman in the adjoining cell, Judith Clark, helped Hylton 
figure out that she had a urinary tract infection triggered by 
antibiotics for a sinus infection. To access medical care, Hylton once 
again had to yell down the corridor to sign up for sick call and go 
through the whole process again. But this time, the gynecologist 
examined her. Although her waist chain and ankle cuffs were removed, she 
remained cuffed by one hand during the exam. “”You’re cuffed, you’re 
chained, you’re strapped. You have to take off some of your clothes 
while being restrained,” she explained. “Being a [rape] survivor, it was 
very violating. I was re-traumatized.”

Hylton was taken off the antibiotics for her sinus infection and placed 
on medication for a urinary tract infection. “But it was only because of 
Judy that I learned what was causing it,” she remembered. “No one had 
asked me anything about my medications.”

Hylton’s medical ordeal happened in 1987. Nearly 30 years later, the 
Correctional Association found that women face the same obstacles. 
Nearly half of the women surveyed attempted to access gynecological care 
while in isolation. More than one-third reported that the officers 
refused to place their names on the sick call list unless the woman 
described her concern. The practice has caused some women to refrain 
from seeking medical, particularly gynecological, care while in 
solitary. Given that the average SHU sentence is about three months and 
that the average keeplock sentence ranges between 14 and 27 days, not 
seeking health care can have deleterious, and sometimes long-lasting, 

In addition, some women have reported that nurses on sick call rounds 
dismissed their concerns and refused to allow them to see a doctor. Even 
when nurses are not dismissive, they must assess the woman through the 
closed cell door. Women also reported waiting for weeks before seeing a 
doctor. In the meantime, their symptoms often worsened. Like Hylton, 
women in the SHU are taken to gynecological appointments in shackles. 
DOCCS policy is to remove shackles for the appointment at the doctor’s 
request, but seven of the 25 women who had GYN exams while in isolation 
reported that they remained in restraints while being examined.

The Correctional Association also has a Prison Visiting Project, which 
visits and monitors conditions in both men’s and women’s prisons in New 
York State. Scott Paltrowitz, the project’s associate director, points 
out that many of these concerns, such as access and quality of medical 
care, are also experienced in men’s isolation units. “Solitary 
confinement is torture for all people because of the intense suffering 
and severe physical and psychological debilitation it causes,” he told 
Solitary Watch. “The particularly devastating gender-specific impacts on 
women in solitary highlighted in Reproductive Injustice epitomize the 
egregious nature of this practice and the extreme punitive approach 
utilized in New York State prisons. New York needs to end this practice 
for all people.”

Hylton agrees. “No one should be dehumanized in such a fashion.” So does 
Elle Farah. “Don’t put no pregnant person in SHU,” she recommended, 
adding, “I hope the whole solitary thing ends. The crime doesn’t justify 
the punishment.”

“These [stories] are examples of why we need to keep people out of 
solitary and keep people out of prison altogether,” said Tamar 
Kraft-Stolar. The report is the launching point for the Correctional 
Association’s Campaign to End Reproductive Injustice, which seeks to 
raise reproductive health care standards in prison, end shackling during 
all stages of pregnancy, and push New York to continue shifting away 
from incarceration by utilizing more alternatives to incarceration and 
ending the criminalization of social and economic issues.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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