Minnesota legislators are currently considering a bill, HF316, that would charge expectant mothers with misdemeanors for using controlled substances while pregnant — and should a woman suffer a miscarriage due to drug use, she’d be charged with a felony. Instead of offering these women much-needed health care and addiction treatment, our state would incarcerate them. HF316 does not understand the dynamics of addiction.
The complex issue of addiction, pregnancy and incarceration is a cycle I know about firsthand. I’m a member of an exclusive club — born heroin-exposed inside a prison to a woman suffering from severe addiction, in desperate need of medical and psychological care. For the first year of my life, prison was my home. When the authorities removed me into foster care, and soon after, adoption, what sounds like a hopeful turn instead became a cycle of two generations of addiction, PTSD and mental health issues.
Unfortunately, my story is not uncommon among offspring of incarcerated women. My birth mother was pregnant with me on one of her many sentences, all related to her heroin addiction. The consequences led to trauma for both of us. The struggles of my birth mother are still the struggles of incarcerated women today, whose needs for comprehensive reproductive and mental health care are unmet.
In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the country to pass a law punishing women whose babies test positive for narcotics upon birth. The law expired last year after it failed to receive enough votes to be extended. Legislators cited heavy criticism and evidence that the law deterred pregnant women from getting neonatal care or addiction counseling for fear of being arrested.
Laws like HF316 present themselves as protection for vulnerable infants, but in reality this type of legislation serves only to discourage women from seeking vital health care. HF316 will increase the number of women in prison, already the fastest-growing prison population, which has spiked 800 percent since the 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice — twice the rate of men. The majority of incarcerated women are sentenced for nonviolent offenses.
Nationally, the rate of women’s incarceration for substance-related offenses is already high — in 2014, more than 60 percent of women in federal prison were there on drug charges, and in state prisons, upward of 85 percent to 90 percent of incarcerated women are sentenced for crimes related to substance abuse. Combine that with the fact that two-thirds of female state prisoners are mothers of children under the age of 18, and it’s easy to see how the further criminalization of pregnancy and addiction will exacerbate an already extreme trend of trauma and loss for at-risk women and their families.
This bill was wrong for the state that piloted it, and it’s wrong for Minnesota. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, it costs $86 per day — more than $30,000 per year — to house a single inmate in prison. Common sense tells us this money would be better spent on expanding access to community health care and mental health resources instead of using it to feed the prison pipeline.
As this bill makes its way through our Legislature, our representatives must consider the toll it would take on women, families and taxpayers in our state. Given the knowledge that legislation like this has failed in other parts of the country, we now have the chance to prevent Minnesota from a similar fate.
The needs of pregnant women suffering from addiction are substantial and complex, and they are not to be solved by further criminalization of an already vulnerable population. Our legislators must recognize that the medical and mental health needs of women are a public health issue, not a criminal justice problem. Call, write and fax your representatives and let them know your voice speaks for those who cannot vote, our women in prison.
Deborah Jiang-Stein lives in Minneapolis.