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In-Depth Interview: Dr. Carolyn Sufrin Details How Women, Especially Expectant Moms, Are Treated in Jail

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Dr. Carolyn Sufrin is an OB/GYN and medical anthropologist whose new book is based on her years of work in the San Francisco County Jail.Sufrin’s fascinating new book is Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars (University of California Press).  Sufrin treated patients in the women’s jail in San Francisco for several years, and also collected data for an anthropology study for her thesis, which forms the core of this book.

Sufrin explains the jail environment, the challenges to delivering patient care in a jail setting, and how she was determined to treat her clients as patients, not prisoners.  She describes the rules and bureaucracy that require a “prescription” just to get ice for a pregnant woman.

She offers a deep understanding, without judgment, of the social forces that lead women to jail, and the unaddressed pathologies that lead to rampant recidivism.  A central figure in the book, Kima, was booked into the jail more than 70 times in a 14-year period.  Sufrin points out that in the US, only prisoners are guaranteed health care, though the quality of care varies widely.

We also discuss several kinds of ambivalence that define the scene: we provide a stable living situation, with adequate food and care, that is often better than life on the streets.  But it is provided in a punitive setting and programmed to repeat by our failure as a society to solve the underlying problems of racism, poverty, homelessness.

Sufrin shares her outrage about the shackling of women as they are giving birth, which is illegal in 22 states, and notes proposed legislation to ban the practice in federal prisons.