JACKSON, Tenn. – July 6, 2004 – Social work students at Union University have won a national award for their work in bringing awareness to the plight of incarcerated women.
Jade Barnard, Lori Smith and Jessica Triplett, along with their faculty advisor, Dr. Terry Blakley, have received first place in the Influencing State Policy 2004 Contest for bachelor of social work students.
The contest recognizes social work students who endeavor “to influence or advocate for a state social policy or a piece of state legislation.” Barnard, Smith and Triplett entered the competition with a proposal titled “Rights of Incarcerated Women: Movement Toward Gender-Specific Guidelines and the Protection of Unborn Children.” The project began as a class assignment for Blakley’s social policy course during the spring semester and was also presented at the Union University Scholarship Symposium May 3.
The project aims to raise awareness of the need for basic gynecological care and cancer screenings for all women in the prison system and specifically for pre- and post-natal care for those who are incarcerated while pregnant. In their research, the students found that Tennessee has no legislation to restrict shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery.
“They are committed to the project even after the class,” Blakley said. “As social workers we are advocates for people who do not have a voice, what we refer to as disenfranchised groups. These three students are growing and learning what it’s like to be a real social worker and be a voice for these women.”
Barnard pointed out that pregnant inmates have a special distinction as a vulnerable group. “We found that it’s two populations in one: the women as well as their unborn children,” she said. “The woman deserves to pay for her crime, but her child, who is innocent, should not be given the same punishment.”
Blakley elaborated, “The punishment should certainly not include threat to her health and life due to inadequate basic medical care.”
The students hope that the national award from ISP will lend credibility and attention to the issue. “If it’s recognized nationally out of lots of other entries, I think that makes people feel like there is something about [the issue] that is worth examining,” Barnard said.
The students have developed another advocate for their cause in Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar), who visited the social policy class to discuss the legislative process. Shaw said he was impressed with the students’ “interest they had shown by how they view the system and how they felt need to change the system not only for inmates but for all Tennesseans.
“Because they were so excited about the process,” Shaw said, “it was my duty as a legislator to respond to their excitement.”
Shaw feels the issue merits further study and has proposed a visit to the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville along with Blakley, Barnard, Smith and Triplett to “look at the system overall,” he said.
Shaw has also mentioned the possibility of introducing legislation. “If we can form a law to make things better, we would certainly do that for them,” he said.
Shaw also offered congratulations to the students for the recognition. “I think they are well deserving of that award,” he said.
The Union social work students share the award with a group from the University of Washington and will divide the $1000 cash prize. The students will accept their award at a ceremony Aug. 8 in Charleston, S.C.