Abortion in U.S. Prisons: How to Whisper Behind Bars

Knowing your reproductive rights in prison is a community effort

By Victoria Law

and Aviva Stahl

Art by Fred Harper

A woman in a white jumpsuit and handcuffs behind shadowy glass
Photograph of Kwaneta Harris by Ariana Gomez

Lux Issue 8 explores international approaches to abortion access. Read more dispatches from El Salvador, New York City, Palestine, and Croatia.

There are no abortion rights in prison. While it’s technically true that incarcerated people have the same legal right to abortion as people who are outside, the reality of prisons and jails is that very few people can get an abortion while they are locked up. One study found that, between 2016 and 2017, only 11 out of 1,396 pregnancies behind bars ended in abortion. In jails, 33 of 224 pregnancies ended in abortion. In contrast, the United States had 11.2 abortions per 1,000 women between ages 15 to 44 in 2020.

These statistics are all from before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Dobbs v. Jackson endangered the legal right to abortion. Reproductive health access is now more precarious than ever, and incarcerated people will be among those who face the most oppressive barriers to getting an abortion. They will also be the ones who will face the most brutal consequences for that lack of access.

“You can’t discuss abortion without discussing what happens if someone doesn’t have an abortion,” says Alexis Mansfield, senior attorney at the Women’s Justice Institute.  Until 1999, no state prohibited clapping handcuffs, leg irons, and a belly chain on a person in labor. Only after sustained organizing did states begin banning the practice but even today, eleven states still lack anti-shackling laws. Similarly, reproductive health care, including pregnancy care, is often inadequate and sometimes fatal. In recent years, California’s female prisons sterilized hundreds of women and trans people, many without their knowledge or informed consent. Abortion access — and navigating the bureaucratic barriers created by jails and prisons — is part of the longer spectrum of reproductive injustices caused by criminalization. 

Despite these incredibly difficult conditions, incarcerated people and organizers on the outside continue to fight for bodily autonomy. Prisons and jails have long implemented systems of surveillance and control designed to neutralize and undermine any resistance. These are challenges that abortion rights organizers now face in a post-Dobbs landscape. In response, incarcerated people and comrades outside have continued to find ways to build community and networks of information, and to make connections between seemingly disparate fights. These are the foundational building blocks of any organizing effort.

It is a moment of crisis for the abortion movement but those inside have dealt with these crisis conditions for years. It’s time to listen to incarcerated people, learn from their experiences, and show solidarity with them. 

Kwaneta Harris

Kwaneta Harris is a nurse incarcerated in Texas. In mid-April, Harris gave an impromptu sex education lesson to younger women. Many had grown up in foster care and juvenile prisons where no one had taught them about their bodies, birth control, or consent.

One woman asked about partial birth abortions, a term created by anti-abortion advocates to stigmatize later abortion care. When Harris began explaining abortions, a guard threatened to have her arrested on criminal charges, which could lead to another prison sentence. 

Prison officials informally punished Harris, moving her to a cell far from others. She can only communicate by screaming loudly through her cell door, making conversations nearly impossible. She has lived largely in isolation for over seven years as of this writing.

However, the 50-year-old remains determined to educate others. “These girls are my daughters’ ages,” she said. “I would want my daughters to know [about their bodies and their rights].” (Harris writes about her struggle to talk to her own children in an essay in this issue of Lux.)

How do you build relationships in places of total control, such as prisons?

I look at relationships as a form of resistance. 

We establish community. It starts off sometimes as a victim network — new girls come in and we tell them things like, “You don’t want [that particular officer] to escort you to the shower. Your hands are cuffed behind your back and he’s going to be rubbing on you the whole way.” 

When we have a chance at a decent conversation, that’s a treat. No one’s ordering you around. We get closer and closer. That is why, when we have indoor rec, girls will climb up [to the top of the individual outdoor rec cage] just to touch each other’s fingers. 

What role do these relationships play in sharing information, educating others or countering misinformation, particularly when it comes to reproductive health?

It’s been established that I’m going to hold their confidence. I’m not going to make fun of them for not being able to read or for being sexually abused. That’s really important because many come from juvenile prison and, before that, foster care. Some were sexually trafficked. 

When I tell them something, they believe me. If a guard tells them something, they’ll ask me, “Is this true?” Especially during the pandemic with all these rumors. 

There are so many myths about health. For instance, the med tech told one girl to take ibuprofen or motrin [for possible vaginal inflammation]. He didn’t tell her to take it orally, so she put it in vaginally like a suppository.

Nobody ever explains anything to them. I have to tell them that they have to wipe from the front to the back [to prevent a urinary tract infection]. 

What can people fighting for abortion access outside learn from creating relationships inside?

If we can do all this with the restrictions we have, then they can do a lot more. 

I hope that they look at this as inspiration. We need to look deeper at what happens when young girls don’t have access to knowledge about their bodies, knowledge about reproductive health care. The lack of knowledge fuels incarceration. It all intersects.

I also hope they’ll reach inside and build bridges.

We need to look deeper at what happens when young girls don’t have access to knowledge about their bodies, OR knowledge about reproductive health care.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown

Ash Williams is a North Carolina–based abolitionist organizer who’s helped support incarcerated trans people fighting for safe(r) housing and access to gender-affirming care, including an activist in the custody of the North Carolina prison system named Kanautica Zayre-Brown. Williams is also an abortion doula, who’s long thought about what the broader reproductive rights movement can learn from the fight for gender justice behind bars, including what it takes to listen and build relationships of trust under state surveillance.

What have you learned about security culture and tactics from abortion doula work as well as supporting people behind bars?

As an abortion doula, I can’t be so secure that people can’t reach me. I want people to access abortion care for free and without barriers. That is actually a critique that I’ve had of certain orgs that offer support: their culture of security creates barriers to those asking questions and receiving info in a timely manner. 

I value accessibility and finding creative and secure ways to communicate. I also practice a lot of deep listening with people, and active listening while supporting them. And a part of active listening is listening for what is not being said — knowing that there are things that can’t be said explicitly, or aloud, like when someone is experiencing domestic violence. I know about active listening from organizing alongside incarcerated people. 

As I’ve been organizing alongside incarcerated folk and experienced incarceration myself, I know how important it is to come to shared values around security — to be mindful of the ways in which the state wants to criminalize us, have a clear understanding of the actual risks, and not forgo anyone’s safety, especially the safety of the most marginalized.

I also have a sense of how to talk to people about what keeps them safe, and I pay attention to ways of communicating that make them feel safe, seen, and held. I’ve learned so much from supporting incarcerated people and organizing alongside them. I strive to apply what I’ve learned there in supporting abortion seekers. 

How has supporting people behind bars informed your work as an abortion doula and vice versa?

An abortion doula provides physical, informational, and emotional support before, during, and after abortion. I can’t imagine being an abortion doula without working alongside Kanautica [and other incarcerated trans women] to get her gender-affirming care. That’s how I’m showing up with incarcerated people, in terms of how I respond, how I support people. In both contexts, there’s a lot of affinity that has to be built up in a short amount of time. The process of building trust is a mutual one.

There’s also an urgency piece. I know the conditions that people are facing inside, [and in the case of] trans folks, I know how urgent it is to address that. And the same sense of urgency is stirred up in me when I’m supporting someone who’s decided to have an abortion. I am moving quickly, because their life depends on it. I’m moving quickly, because I don’t want them to go without the care that they deserve.

I am moving quickly, because their life depends on it. I’m moving quickly, because I don’t want them to go without the care that they deserve.

Leesa Nomura

The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) encompasses currently and formerly incarcerated women and trans people as well as advocates who have never been imprisoned. It began in 1995 in support of a class-action lawsuit. Even after the lawsuit was settled, the Coalition continued to organize around ending injustices, such as shackling during childbirth and pregnancy, forced sterilizations, and life without parole sentences.

Leesa Nomura first learned about the coalition while imprisoned in California. After her release, she became the group’s Inside-Outside membership organizer, communicating with people in California’s women’s prisons and helping advocate for their needs.

California is one of four states with a law allowing abortions in prison. Talk about reproductive health care overall in prison. Have you ever met anyone who had an abortion behind bars?

As a whole, reproductive health care inside is lacking. We see it in pregnancy and childbirth. We see it in the hundreds of coerced sterilizations. A lot of people who got sterilizations, they were never allowed to get a second opinion. They were told that the surgery would save their lives.

I’ve never heard anybody say they were able to ask for an abortion. Medical [staff] post info about all sorts of things, but reproductive health is not one of them. 

Can you talk about the importance of relationship building and how it relates to organizing?

CCWP started because of inside organizing. In 1995, Charisse Shumate sued the California prison system for substandard medical care. She reached out to people on the outside, who helped her file the class-action lawsuit. 

When I first got to prison [in 2012], an older lifer asked, “What are you doing with your life?” She told me, “You’re gonna come to chapel and I’m gonna sign you up for all these groups.” 

It’s because she did that that I ended up becoming an organizer. Once she moved to a different prison, I stayed and continued [organizing]. What is the sign of a good leader? A leader is someone who works themselves out of a job. She was that kind of leader.

The more you empower people, the more they realize their leadership qualities. And when they know they’re needed, they step up.

And if people inside can do so much to get the word out, at the risk of retaliation [such as solitary confinement or losing access to phone calls, visits, or time off for good behavior], then we should be working double and triple hard to make things happen. We need to see the worth in what they’re doing, amplify their voices, and add to that. 

How do inside-outside relationships work?

Our people inside know that we’re at the ready. We get the call and then move to action. We start notifying the wardens and chief deputy wardens and start holding them accountable [for abuses and outrages]. We tell them, “People are getting sick. People could die. What are you doing about it?”

They know about us, and they all know that as long as there’s a means to contact us, we will be there.

We’re working to Drop LWOP [life without parole]. We needed to know why women in one prison weren’t meeting regularly. I asked the lifer who encouraged me and she said, “Let me find out.”

Because of that one question, women serving LWOP [at the California Institution for Women] are now an organized group that meets monthly. 

[With the introduction of tablets and e-messaging], people can get information in real time. We can send updates on certain bills going through the Senate that would directly impact people and let them go home.

The more you empower people, the more they realize their leadership qualities. And when they know they’re needed, they step up.

People inside are not simply saying, “Help me.” They’re saying, “What can I do?”

Everyone’s not Lone Rangers in this. We’re all collectively caring for one another because the system won’t do it for us. 

Victoria Law is a freelance journalist and author who covers incarceration. Her books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (co-authored with Maya Schenwar), and “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration. She is currently working on a book about the Covid-19 pandemic in prisons (forthcoming from Haymarket Books).

Aviva Stahl is an investigative reporter who writes about health at the intersection of power and politics, including for Lux, the Nation, the Guardian, Wired, and a host of other outlets. She is also a Registered Nurse. You can follow her @stahlidarity.

Thank you to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – New York Office and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) for their support of this article.