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Lawmakers seek to improve health conditions faced by women who are incarcerated


Lawmakers seek to improve health conditions faced by women who are incarcerated

Mar 21, 2023 | 8:41 am ET
By Michael Lyle
Lawmakers seek to improve health conditions faced by women who are incarcerated
“I don’t want to lose sight of what this bill does, which is to provide dignity and respect to incarcerated women,” said Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections)

Lawmakers are debating legislation that addresses the inadequate standards of care and health treatment for women incarcerated in Nevada. 

Sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Cecelia González, Assembly Bill 292 would make feminine hygiene products free of charge in correctional facilities while seeking to expand the timeframe mothers spend with newborns and ensuring those incarcerated have access to regular gynecological screenings and mammograms. 

González said she is already working to amend the legislation, which was heard Monday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, to clarify intent on several provisions.

She plans to strip a section creating an ombudsman for correctional facilities in Nevada, an independent position civil rights and prison reform advocates have called for in order to monitor the implementation of policy and investigate complaints by those incarcerated. 

“We believe there is a more appropriate vehicle and place for that and it’s not in this one at this time,” González said.

Lilith Baran, the policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said women are the “fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population” and there are eight times as many women currently incarcerated than there were in the 1980s. 

A 2018 report from the Crime and Justice Institute showed the female population within the Nevada Department of Corrections grew 39% over a decade.

Despite the growth, correctional facilities still don’t take into account the specific needs of women who are incarcerated.

“Women have different needs than men, especially when we are talking about being incarcerated,” Baran said. 

Baran, who presented the legislation to the committee virtually along with González, said several states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, have already made menstrual products in prisons free.

Nevada Department of Corrections director James Dzurenda told lawmakers incarcerated women are provided sanitary napkins for free. While he believed women could receive an unlimited number he said wasn’t completely sure.  

Tampons, he said, could be purchased through the commissary but are free for those who are considered indigent.

Recent reports into mark ups on commissary items found that while the vendor price for a box of Playtex tampons costs NDOC $6.08, the department sells them for $10.13. Midol, which costs $4.70 for a box with 16 tablets, is sold at $7.83.

There are no mandatory or annual gynecological screenings. Dzurenda said a prison physician can refer women to receive gynecological exams based on the results of the initial screening.  

He added mammograms are “offered but not mandatory.”

“We know that women who do not receive regular gynecological exams or mammograms can go untreated for much more serious health problems like cancer,” Baran said.

In testifying in support of the bill, ACLU of Nevada executive director Athar Haseebullah said the organization is investigating “ongoing scenarios of individuals who have received (pelvic) exams, had irregularities, were not given any follow-up exams or treatment and ended up with cervical cancer.”

The legislation is also seeking to expand on prenatal and postpartum care for pregnant women and lengthen the time they can bond with the newborn. 

“Currently when a baby is born to an offender in the system, they are sent to an outside hospital or local hospital of the birth,” Dzurenda said. “Within three days, the actual baby is removed from the parent. We don’t take the babies into the prison system.”

He added that creating a facility that would allow incarcerated mothers to stay with their babies longer after birth would have “an enormous fiscal impact.”

González said she plans to clean up the language saying the bill’s “intent is to not have children incarcerated.” 

“We know through research that time with your baby when you’re giving birth is intimate and special,” she said. “We want to make sure that mothers who are incarcerated can have those moments with the baby. They are only given 72 hours. We are looking to extend the time. What that time would be and where is part of our amendment discussion.”

The legislation also includes provisions to ensure those incarcerated are treated in accordance to their gender identity, which drew numerous questions from Republican lawmakers over its inclusion.

A separate bill being heard by the Senate Judiciary this week is expected to go in detail about treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming people who are incarcerated, and González said her bill compliments that legislation.

“I don’t want to lose sight of what this bill does, which is to provide dignity and respect to incarcerated women,” she said. “Yes, there is a section in there that includes having respect to a person’s gender identity and we are working on that section. This is not a transgender bill.” 

Dzurenda testified in neutral on the legislation but said he worried some of the provisions would put him at odds with existing federal law, including the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Other law enforcement agencies, including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, were opposed, citing concerns over the creation of an ombudsman and staffing issues that could arise to comply with several provisions of the bill.