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Pregnant Women and Immigrant Children: The Latest Victims of Mass Imprisonment?

A Tennessee law recently signed by Gov. Bill Haslam criminalizes women who ingest narcotics while pregnant.

(Image: Craig Hennecke / Flickr)

As state legislators and corporate lobbyists convened in Dallas for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting recently, what happened behind closed doors no doubt will continue to fuel the most disturbing public policy trends of the past few years. That is, to bolster the proliferation of stand your ground laws, the expansion of the private corrections industry and regressive laws that target immigrants and funnel them into jails and detention centers.

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) forays into criminal justice and immigration policy have had a trio of agendas in common: They target black and brown people, devalue our lives and put us for sale to the highest bidder. Most insidiously, ALEC has made legislating racism and putting a price tag on black and brown bodies acceptable. Those politicians aligned with ALEC have taken these lessons to heart.

Look no further than recent events in Tennessee for proof. There, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who has a history of passing ALEC-backed legislation, has recently settled on two targets: pregnant women who use drugs in the state of Tennessee, and the traumatized immigrant children in his state. Both groups are bound together as a Rorschach test for policy makers’ views on race, class and gender.

The law recently signed by Haslam criminalizes women who ingest narcotics while pregnant – deeming this a type of “assault” on a mother’s unborn child. This law will surely funnel hundreds of women (likely poor women and disproportionately black and brown women) into Tennessee’s prisons and jails. Eight days after the law went into effect, the first woman was arrested under its terms.

Tennessee’s taxpayers pay more than $24,000 annually for each person living behind bars in the state. In 2013, more than 800 babies were born drug-addicted in Tennessee. If only half of those mothers were prosecuted and sentenced, the cost to taxpayers would be an additional $9.6 million for each year of imprisonment. If all those mothers were criminalized, the cost would exceed $19 million a year.

That’s a tremendous fiscal burden to impose on taxpayers. Tennessee lawmakers simply scoffed at the costs and celebrated becoming the first state in the country to create a law criminalizing pregnant women. It is a precedent that no fair-minded legislator wants to see repeated anywhere else in the country.

Moreover, state-based advocates have pointed out time and time again that if Haslam and his allies really cared about the children born to mothers who use drugs (or if they cared about helping families unravel the intertwined burdens of trauma, mental illness and addictions), the very last place they’d put pregnant women is on a cellblock.

There is no question that the state can – and should – do more to ensure that all babies have a healthy start and their mothers are able to make healthy life choices. But imprisoning mothers is no way to improve the health of children.

Healthy mothers make healthy babies. And prisons don’t make mothers healthy – not when the American Journal of Public Health has documented that a prison stay so dramatically affects a person’s health and wellbeing that life expectancy decreases two years for every one year spent in prison.

Every national medical organization without exception protested this law. There is simply no compelling public safety or policy rationale to support it.

Multiple studies on the issue point to the same conclusions: The law will do nothing good for women and their babies. Instead, it will affirmatively harm families and it has the potential to significantly drain state coffers.

It’s tempting to imagine a different reality. To imagine the support Tennessee women, children and their families could receive if the millions of taxpayer dollars that will fund prison cells for pregnant women were diverted to communities.

Imagine what women’s lives would be like if their elected officials refused to invest in prisons and instead funded mental health and addiction treatment, job programs, mother mentoring programs, and child care. These are the sorts of interventions that are proven to help mothers make positive choices for their children.

That fantastical reality clearly won’t happen anytime soon in Tennessee. That is especially true since Tennessee is home to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest and largely reviled private prison company in the country.

The corporation makes profits only when its prison beds are filled. It’s an incredibly perverse industry – the worse CCA does at rehabilitating the men and women it imprisons and the more likely they are to recidivate – the more the corporation will earn for its shareholders.

And the corrections industry makes big money contributions – almost exclusively to Republican legislators – and hires powerhouse lobbyists to represent its interests in Nashville. CCA also insists that, as a matter of company public policy, it takes no official, explicit position on criminal law or sentencing policy. But that policy doesn’t stop the corporation from making plain what is obvious to even the most unsophisticated observer: Reductions in the number of people who are locked up is bad for business.

CCA officials have obviously been watching the national trends toward decarceration with some trepidation. Its 2013 annual report states:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

With friends like Governor Haslam and ALEC, CCA clearly shouldn’t worry too much about decreasing profits. But communities must continue to worry about who will be targeted next by racist legislation and the greedy profiteers of the private prison industry.

Governor Haslam may have provided a hint about his next target when he penned a letter to President Obama expressing outrage at the fact that 760 unaccompanied immigrant children live in Tennessee with sponsors, generally a friend or relative of the child who agrees to care for the child for the duration of immigration proceedings.

These are 760 children who are not living in desolate, abusive detention centers – and are instead in homes with people to whom they have a connection. Private residents – not the government – are providing for their care and shelter.

Who could object to such an outcome? One guess: ALEC, CCA and the private prison industry – who have been circling the humanitarian crisis at the border like vultures – eager, it seems, to profit off the misery of the world’s children.

As terrible as this is as a matter of public policy – no student of US history should be shocked. Without question, there is deep historical precedent here. For as long as this country has existed, women of color and their children have borne the brunt of lawmakers’ fear, racism and need to exert control over those women’s bodies and their offspring. These are merely the most recent examples.

Racial justice advocates, fiscal conservatives and good government groups have recently celebrated the declining imprisonment rates across the country. Some have even suggested that the beginning of the end of the age of mass imprisonment has arrived. But Governor Haslam’s recent actions demonstrate that too many elected officials still ignore the reality that prisons, jails and detention centers cause far more problems than they solve. As a result, mostly black and brown men, women and children will continue to be warehoused in cages – often making huge profits for the private prison industry while suffering the horrific abuses endemic to this country’s correctional system.

In the eyes of many elected officials and certainly from the perspective of interest groups and the private corrections industry, the destinies of poor, black and brown women and children are – quite literally – up for sale.

And for as long as this remains the case, struggle against mass imprisonment will remain the most urgent critical human rights issue of our time.

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