California Considers Law to Aid Young Parents Living in Prison

California’s legislature recently considered a bill that was
at once both straightforward and groundbreaking. A simple adjustment to the state Welfare and Institutions Code
would assist incarcerated youth with children of their own in being more
effective parents, which would be a huge victory for reproductive justice
advocates.  SB 134 would achieve this by expanding the list of approved persons incarcerated young
parents may contact regarding their children’s care while they are detained in
state and county juvenile facilities.

Current California law allows incarcerated youth to make a
minimum of four telephone calls per month to their family members.  While this policy does promote
communication between incarcerated youth and their relatives, it fails to
recognize that non-relative caregivers may play important roles in the
upbringing of their children.  In
addition, because the children of incarcerated youth tend to be quite young,
telephone calls are not necessarily an effective mode of communication.  SB 134 added social workers,
physicians, teachers, the child’s other parent, and other non-relative
caregivers to the list of approved persons an incarcerated young parent may
call in order to participate more fully in their children’s lives.

State Senator Carol Liu, a Democrat representing the 21st
District of California, was the bill’s principal author.  Liu currently chairs the Select
Committee for Women and Children in the Criminal Justice System, which seeks
solutions that will rehabilitate women prisoners and reunite them with their
families.  When asked why she
decided to author SB 134, Liu answered, “Advocates informed me that
incarcerated young parents were having difficulty contacting their children’s
caregivers, which severely impedes their ability to parent while incarcerated
and increases the likelihood that children will end up in the child welfare

These advocates included fellows from the Women’s Policy Institute, a
program of the Women’s Foundation of California, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the Center for Young Women’s
(CYWD), the latter three of which
were co-sponsors of SB 134.
CYWD is a San Francisco-based organization
that serves young women in local juvenile detention facilities.  In 2005, a CYWD project called Young
Mothers United, along with other organizational partners and the San Francisco
Chief Probation Officer for the Juvenile Probation Department successfully
implemented the Incarcerated Young Mother’s Bill of Rights.  The Bill of Rights states that
incarcerated young women in San Francisco juvenile detention facilities have
the right to be informed about their children’s well-being and safety, and the
right to see, touch, and speak with their children.  Advocates took these principles one step further when they
proposed adding non-relative caregivers to the list of approved persons
incarcerated young parents may contact in SB134.

Senator Liu wants to shine a bright light on the unique
needs of incarcerated young parents. 
She hoped that SB 134 would “ensure that these individuals are able to
be active participants in their children’s lives, and protect children from
entering the child welfare system.” 
The Senator also wanted to prevent recidivism; she stated that
“California’s only hope for breaking the cycle of crime and avoiding the costs
it imposes on society is to equip offenders with the knowledge, skills, and
tools they need to lead productive lives, reunify with their families, and stay
out of prison.”

National statistics on the number of parenting incarcerated
youth are difficult to find.  The
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that in 2006,
close to 93,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement facilities
, but data
indicating how many were parents was not available.  A report released in July 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention
indicates that in 2004, the pregnancy rate for
young women between the ages of 15-19 years was 160.1 per 1,000 population,
which is 16 percent. 
these data do not specify how many adolescent parents are incarcerated on a
national level.  The dearth of
national data on incarcerated young parents suggests that additional study is
needed in order to direct policy initiatives that address their unique issues.

A National Council on Crime and Delinquency study conducted in 2006 gives us an idea of how many incarcerated youth may be
parents at the state level.  The
study evaluated Florida’s treatment of girls in its juvenile justice system and
found that 35 percent of girls living in residential programs surveyed had been
pregnant at one time and 10 percent currently were parents.  The report notes a lack of comprehensive services offered to
pregnant and parenting young women in Florida juvenile facilities. Though it
focuses on just one state and only on incarcerated young women, the 2006 study
provides a snapshot of probable demographics in other states.

Unfortunately, SB 134 was held in the Senate Appropriations
Committee due to concerns about the cost of the bill.  Senator Liu’s office plans to work with the Department of
Juvenile Justice to make the policy change administratively in order to reduce
expense to the state during California’s ongoing budget crisis.  Hopefully, this effort will be
successful; if the change is made, incarcerated young parents will be one step
closer to realizing reproductive justice. 
They will be able to call non-relative caregivers like social workers,
pediatricians, and friends to check on their children’s health and
well-being.  Knowing where their
children are and who is caring for them empowers adolescent parents to remain
involved in their children’s lives during their incarceration.

As a marginalized population twice over (incarcerated people
and youth are two groups that are disenfranchised and thus denied a voice in
policy decisions directly affecting them), the reproductive justice lens is a
particularly helpful way of examining this issue.  This lens brings into focus the history of reproductive
oppression among certain groups of people, including prisoners. Incarcerated people have very little
control over their bodies and their relationships due to the extreme power
inequities found in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Adolescent parents do not automatically give up their
parental rights when they are incarcerated.  Instead, incarcerated youth should be provided with tools to
help them achieve their full potential as parents.  They need information about their right to contact their
children and their children’s caregivers (both family members and
non-relatives).  The information
they are given should be culturally competent and linguistically appropriate.  Juvenile detention staff should be
educated about the rights of incarcerated young parents.  Any change to California policy dealing
with incarcerated young parents will be merely an empty promise, however, if reproductive
justice advocates do not closely monitor implementation of the policy.  These combined efforts are necessary
for reproductive justice to be achieved for incarcerated young parents.   

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  • stv-productions

    Finally – it takes a state like California to continue this trend, of having some rights and programs for imprisoned women to communicate with their children, to help slow the cycle of incarceration. Are there prison doula programs in CA like there are in NY and MA??

  • deb-r

    Though this is a good idea–I find it frustrating that there are so many programs to help inmates while there are NONE for the people who are raising the children of inmates. My ex son-in-law is in prison (and he deserves to be there) he gets meals and health care and even an education while my daughter struggles to survive–without my husband and I she would have ended up on the streets and the kids probably in foster care! There is fortuanatley Medicaid for the kids but not for. She was a victim of his abuse for years and needs an education–how about some programs to help her!! Of course we are helping them as much as we can we are not rich and it is getting stressful for all of us with daughter and her 3 kids all sharing 1 bedroom–there simply is no assistance for housing in our area.