“I saw you looked surprised when they said that the women are shackled.” (Aldira 1)
That’s Aldira Aldape, speaking today at a day of legislative action, advocating for reforms to restore dignity for women and girls who are incarcerated.
It’s part of an event organized by the Wisconsin Black Legislative Caucus and a variety of prison justice groups, including FREE and Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, or EXPO. They called it, “A Day of Empathy.”
Aldape spoke this morning on a panel educating attendees on several key proposals. One of these proposals was to ban the practice of shackling pregnant women who are incarcerated.
That’s one of the key goals of what advocates are calling the Dignity Act. And they’re hoping these reforms make it into ongoing budget hearings, as lawmakers buckle down for work on the next two-year state budget.
The legislature’s budget writing committee began their briefings with state agencies this week. Today, the committee was briefed by the Department of Corrections.
Senator Howard Marklein and Representative Mark Born, two Republican co-chairs of the legislative committee, held a brief press conference this morning in advance of hearings.
Born says Republicans are working on a new budget because they do not support the spending increases that Governor Tony Evers proposed in his budget.
“Wisconsin Policy Forum called it the largest imbalance of any budget on record. So certainly we’re gonna have to scratch that budget, start from base.” (Mark)
In his budget proposal, Evers has demanded raises for corrections officers, prosecutors, and public defenders. He’s also suggested that he might veto a budget that didn’t include these pay increases.
Evers also proposed funding towards treatment of pregnant and postpartum people in prisons.
And prison justice advocates continued their push for more reforms to the state’s corrections system during today’s “Day of Empathy” – a day of education and legislative lobbying.
Peggy West-Schroder is the executive director of FREE, a non-profit organization focused on the unique issues of women who have experienced incarceration. She says that while shackling pregnant women is unusual in state prisons, the proposed bill would provide some protections to prevent bringing back the practice.
A bill announced earlier this month would ban the practice of shackling incarcerated women while giving birth. West-Schroder says they’re giving light to the proposal during budget hearings.
Another key issue for prison justice organizers: doulas to assist pregnant incarcerated before, during, and after their pregnancy. . West-Schroder says being incarcerated and pregnant is isolating.
“Right now, pregnant women in the state of Wisconsin give birth alone. They don’t have anyone there with them. Many, many times their families don’t know that they’re there giving birth.”
Under the proposal, doulas would provide post-birth care after mothers are separated from their baby. In Wisconsin, women only have 24 hours with their newborn in prison before they are taken away.
“Incarcerated women deserve dignity the same as every other woman. Even as a human being I would like to name my unalienable rights, and one of them is dignity.” (Peggy 1)
Their proposal also changes several expungement laws. That is, laws allowing erasure of criminal records.
If passed, it would increase the number of offenses that are eligible for expungement and create clear standards for what it means to complete a sentence.
Senator Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee, stressed the importance of emphasizing the issue to legislators.
“And often the people who are impacted the most are the people that people say, well this is what we gonna do for you, they don’t get to be at the table to say this is what is needed for us. So it is important for the community to hear those voices, to uplift those voices, to push those voices forward so that we can educate others.” (Sen 3)
Senator Taylor, joined by Madison Representative Lisa Subeck, announced proposals supporting pregnant people earlier this month, on International Women’s Day.
Those lawmakers tell W-O-R-T that they haven’t submitted the proposals to the Legislature -yet. First, they’re hoping the Joint Finance Committee seriously considers similar policies included in Governor Evers’ budget proposal. They say they’re getting some bipartisan support.
But, it’s likely the budget-writing committee strips out those reforms as part of a large revision intended to remove policy from the budget process. If a Republican rewrite fails to include these proposals, Senator Taylor and Representative Subeck plan to introduce bills to prevent shackling, create a doula program, and create other policies to support pregnant people who are incarcerated.
In 2017, those two lawmakers introduced a proposal to prevent shackling of incarcerated pregnant people, after a former inmate in a Milwaukee County Jail sued the county after being shackled while she gave birth. While that proposal received some bipartisan support, it failed to pass.
Reporting for W-O-R-T News, I’m Abigail Leavins.
Photo by Abigail Leavins