Legislative package would help incarcerated women, parents in Pa.

HARRISBURG, March 27 – State Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Phila., and colleagues today unveiled a package of legislation that would help incarcerated women and parents in Pennsylvania.

“As chairwoman of the Women and Girls of Color Subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, I traveled to SCI-Muncy last year, which is one of the two state prisons that house female inmates, and heard the cries for help,” Cephas said. “The visit made me realize that while I'm proud of the significant strides we've seen in our fight for criminal justice reform, we must include our women and girls of color in the bipartisan discussion. 

"Women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of women in jail in the U.S. has grown 14-fold since 1970. Furthermore, a majority are accused of non-violent offenses. What's often ignored by our criminal justice system, though, is the fact female offenders have vastly different needs and experience different stresses compared to men.”

Cephas plans to introduce two bills: one would create a Women and Girls Committee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency; the other bill would require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to submit an annual report on healthcare screenings and care services they provide to the House Health and Human Services committees and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Phila., chairman of the PLBC, said, “We have achieved milestones in Pennsylvania regarding criminal justice reform, but we are far from finished. This package of legislation would help change the commonwealth’s prison system and help support incarcerated women. I would like to thank Representative Cephas, as well as Representatives Fiedler, Fitzgerald, Lee, Bullock and McClinton for leading the charge.” 

The other legislation in the package would:

  • Bring ombudsmen and offer reentry mentoring program; bills sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Fielder, D-Phila., who said, “Establishing an ombudsmen program will help protect people in prison from biased treatment when they file complaints. Meanwhile, creating a mentoring program will allow incarcerated people to learn from peers who have already successfully transitioned back home, which helps lower recidivism and keeps our communities together.”
  • Require state prisons to provide free feminine hygiene items to all female inmates; bill sponsored by Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald, D-Phila., who said, "While the Department of Corrections recently changed its policy internally to provide these products, my legislation would make this change in Pennsylvania law so that future administrations could not easily repeal it."   
  • Provide alternative sentencing for pregnant women, bill sponsored by Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, who said, “Alternative sentencing keeps pregnant women out of prison and connects them with vital resources like vocational and educational services, job training and placement education, affordable and safe housing assistance, parenting classes, and family case management services.
  • Require trauma-informed care, bill also sponsored by Lee, who said, “Many women have experienced trauma prior to prison and while in prison. If we do not heal our trauma-impacted community members, particularly women, we will continue to see the devastating impact on our children as they are without mothers, and on our women as they get funneled into the prison industrial complex without care.”

Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Phila., has legislation in the package that would offer a free monthly phone call to incarcerated parents. Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Phila./Delaware, has sponsored legislation that would expand benefit programs to incarcerated people reentering society.  

“Pennsylvania’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women package is a powerful example of what happens when lawmakers from both parties, formerly incarcerated women and community members come together to craft solutions," said Topeka K. Sam, #cut50 director of dignity for incarcerated women. "This package of bills was informed by the experiences of countless women who were separated from their children and families by incarceration; women who survived the trauma of Pennsylvania’s prison system; and women who have overcome the challenges of returning home to live full, productive and successful lives. Together, I know this coalition will be able to bring dramatic improvements to Pennsylvania’s criminal justice and prison system on behalf of some of the most vulnerable and silenced women. I am so proud to support these leaders and their efforts."