Ban on shackling pregnant women, solitary confinement in prison advances in Pa. House

‘I’m not saying open the door and let everyone out. All I’m saying is give these women some dignity,’ women’s safe house director Tonie Willis said

By: - April 18, 2023 5:08 pm

Tonie Willis fought back tears Tuesday after Pennsylvania lawmakers advanced a bill to prohibit the shackling of pregnant women and improve conditions for mothers who give birth behind bars.

As a formerly incarcerated woman and the director of Ardella’s House, a Philadelphia safe house for women recently released from prison, improving women’s maternal health in correctional settings has been a years-long dream to give those paying for mistakes a little more humanity, Willis said.

“I’m not saying open the door and let everyone out. All I’m saying is give these women some dignity,” Willis said. “A part of your rehabilitation is supposed to start while you’re incarcerated. And that’s a part of it … giving them some humanity, treating them like women.”

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously reported out House Bill 900, which, in addition to bans on shackling expectant mothers, includes a host of measures to implement best practices, some of which are already in place in federal prisons.

The bill would also prohibit solitary confinement of pregnant women and full-body searches by male guards. 

Other provisions include:

  • trauma-informed care training for officers working with pregnant or postpartum women,
  • up to three days for incarcerated mothers to bond with newborns, 
  • adequate visitation time for women who were the sole legal guardian of children when arrested, free feminine hygiene products, 
  • and limited expenses to transport individuals to a safe place upon release.

State Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Philadelphia, is a prime sponsor of the bill with Reps. Mike Jones, R-York, and Tina Davis, D-Bucks.

Cephas said that there are now more than 200,000 incarcerated women in the United States – a 700% increase since 1980. The majority are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, are primary caregivers for children, and an overwhelming number are victims of sexual assault.

“These women are still our mothers, wives. sisters, daughters, and it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure we treat them with dignity,” Cephas said.

Jones noted a similar bill passed unanimously in the House last year.

As a Republican, Jones said he didn’t come to Harrisburg to work on criminal justice reform, adding that he is “kind of a tough on crime guy.”

That changed shortly after he took office when he attended an event at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, an all-women’s prison in Lycoming County.

“This is not a soft-on-crime bill,” Jones said. “This is an acknowledgement that prisons were not designed with women in mind.”

Willis said prisons and jails lack even the simplest accommodations for women. One resident of Ardella’s House needed knee surgery after her release because she had repeatedly tripped over an ill-fitting prison uniform.

By treating women in prison with dignity and respect, the corrections department would also eliminate a factor in many of the women’s lives that put them on the wrong path and help to ensure that they do not return to prison, Jones said. 

“We also want to take care of their children who are innocent victims and all of this this bill goes a long way as well as protecting the unborn,” Jones said. 

“It’s the American thing, the right thing, the Christian thing to do to extend grace and to treat these people the way we would want our wives and sisters and daughters to be treated,” he said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.