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February 17, 2011

What would you trade for your freedom Why should you care about the Scott sisters if you care about reproductive health

Recently, Gladys and Jamie Scott were released from prison after 16 years. Each received a lifetime sentence for allegedly assisting with the theft of $11. The Scotts were released on suspended charges: they will both be on parole for the rest of their lives. As a condition of her release, Gladys is required to donate one of her kidneys to Jamie, who suffers from kidney failure and receives regular dialysis treatment. In her petition for freedom, Gladys voluntarily offered this donation. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour mandated her kidney donation in order for her to be freed.

Reproductive freedom is the ability to make informed choices about your own body, free from coercion. Reproductive freedom is about access to needed healthcare and resources. As feminist advocates for health, we know that our bodies consist of so much more than our uteruses (or lack thereof) and that choice is about so much more than whether to become pregnant or not, whether to stay pregnant or not. Bodily integrity and the ability to make conscious choices about our own bodies and lives are basic human rights. The Scott sisters' case raises the question: is the prison system antithetical to reproductive freedom

Healthcare in prison is shoddy at best, fatal at worst. Incarcerated people are routinely denied access to crucial medications for established conditions, such as HIV, diabetes and hepatitis C, as well as preventative screenings. Fatalities in prison due to inadequate healthcare are extremely difficult to document; however, in California alone, it is estimated that one person in prison dies every week due to inadequate healthcare.

Jamie Scott had been denied treatment for her life-threatening kidney condition while incarcerated, and her release is timed just before she receives a needed kidney transplant in a move that Barbour himself acknowledged is to save money. To save the state the expense of hospital transport and care during and after birth, pregnant women are not uncommonly freed just prior to delivery, according to informal conversations with people who work in prisons and jails. Women are routinely denied access to abortions in prison.

In the Scott sisters' case, the tentacles of the prison system clearly demonstrate its ability to restrict body autonomy for those not incarcerated, but still within the grips of the system. On any given day, five million people in the U.S. are surveilled by the prison system via probation and parole. Their access to healthcare and choice are also affected by the prison system. For example, potentially dangerous long acting birth control implants have historically been imposed on some women as a condition of probation. The mandating of Gladys Scott's kidney donation continues this legacy of bodily control.

Because over 70 percent of people enmeshed in the prison system are people of color, healthcare concerns within prison, on probation and on parole, have a disproportionate affect on the community. As black women, the Scott sisters were six times more likely than white women to be incarcerated in the first place. Barbour's explicit ties with white supremacist groups and his advocacy of racial segregation have been widely publicized. However, Barbour's stated opinions, as well as decision on the Scott sisters' case, are not exceptional. Our society depends on the prison industry, which provides enormous profits to corporate interests, as a way to obscure and enable the social ills caused by catastrophically intertwined webs of oppression, such as racism and sexism. Controlling people's bodies to maintain a hierarchical social order is familiar to reproductive freedom advocates: controlling women's bodies has long been used as a tool to disable feminist organizing and revolt.

Ultimately, the story of the Scott sisters is far from unique in its denial of respectful healthcare and informed choices about their own bodies. Sure, Gladys originally proposed that she donate a kidney to her ailing sister; however, when the state mandated her donation as a condition of her release, her choice was superseded by the prison system's authority over her body. Both women have been deprived of reproductive freedom via these actions, demonstrating the prison system's ability to infiltrate even the most intimate of decisions.

No one's prison sentence explicitly includes lack of access to reliable and safe healthcare and the dismantling of choice. Perhaps little more can be expected from a system based on control and punitive justice. However, the prison system extends its tentacles to maintain a firm grasp on those who have been released. A history of incarceration can violate someone's most fundamental right: the right to ownership of and decision-making about her own body. In the struggle for reproductive freedom, we should not forget about those struggling with the violence and control of the prison system. If one of us is chained, then none of us are free.