For Thousands of Georgians, Freely Traveling Across State Lines for an Abortion Is Not an Option

For Georgia residents on parole and probation, the state’s six-week abortion ban leaves few choices—and effectively deputizes parole and probation officers to make decisions about their reproductive care.

Piper French   |    July 25, 2022

Abortion rights advocates rally at the Georgia capitol in 2019 protesting the state's "heartbeat" law banning abortions after six weeks. (John Ramspott/Wikimedia Commons)

Being on probation and parole is becoming a uniquely challenging situation for pregnant people in Georgia following the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Last week, a federal appeals court allowed a 2019 law prohibiting abortion after six weeks—before many women even know they are pregnant—to immediately take effect.

The near-total ban will severely constrict the reproductive choices of Georgians on probation and parole. Residents in this category who need an abortion will be faced with an impossible choice: giving birth and caring for a baby they do not want and likely cannot afford to raise, or traveling out of state for an abortion and risking a violation of their parole or probation conditions, which could land them back in prison.

Amy Ard, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Motherhood Beyond Bars, works with expectant mothers in prison, on probation, and on parole. The organization also supports their former clients in transitioning out of prison. “I’ve talked to a few of them about the restriction on travel,” Ard said, “and how frustrating it is for them to hear you just have to go to another state, like that’s no big deal, like you get in a car and you drive to another state and stay with friends. That’s not the way it works for them. And you know, no one seems to understand that.” 

Around 666,400 women are on parole or probation at any given day in the U.S., according to a recent Prison Policy Initiative report. In Georgia, the rate of people under probation is the hightest in the nation, affecting hundreds of thousands. Around one in 25 adults are under “community supervision.”  

This stems from a law that forced judges to give the maximum sentence to people convicted of a second felony, Andrew Fleischman, an appellate lawyer at the Atlanta firm Ross & Pines, told Bolts. “What this ends up meaning is that people who have relatively minor second offenses end up getting 20 years probation,” he said. And though Georgia enacted a 2021 reform that allows people to request early termination of their probation after three years, it’s too early to tell whether that will substantially reduce these numbers. Fleischman noted that many people simply don’t have the means to challenge their probation. “If you fix the rules but don’t give people automatic counsel or an automatic hearing, it’s not always going to get fixed,” he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Georgians are living with this sword of Damocles hanging over them. Probation’s intended status as a community alternative to incarceration is “definitely complicated by the number of people who go back to prison for violating probation,” said Page Dukes, the communications associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “There’s so many restrictive conditions.” And being on probation often costs more than people can afford. 

In 2015, probation revocations accounted for an astonishing 55 percent of all prison admissions in Georgia. Over 1,100 people in the state were sent back to prison for technical parole violations in 2019—just over three people a day. A 2017 Harvard Kennedy School report on probation concluded that “the largest alternative to incarceration in the United States is simultaneously one of the most significant drivers of mass incarceration.” 

Dukes spent three years on probation after serving a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence. In 2020, she filed for early release, in part so she could register to vote in time for the presidential election (people who have received a felony conviction and are on parole or probation in Georgia cannot vote). Dukes said her experience on probation was remarkably smooth, owing to her strong support system and the fact that she could afford to attend college after getting out. Still, she said, “I lived with the implicit threat of their control over my life and my movements.” Other people she knows had much worse experiences: Dukes mentioned a friend who’d been forbidden from having social media accounts as a condition of his probation. After he filed a motion under the recent reform to terminate his supervision early, probation officials searched his laptop, in what Dukes assumed was a retaliatory move, and discovered he’d watched a TikTok video. He went back to prison.

“It’s very arbitrary,” Dukes said. “Just as most other things in the criminal legal system, it very much depends on what office you’re at, what probation officer you have, what kind of caseload they have, and what kind of biases they have.”

This close monitoring and surveillance could pose specific challenges for people seeking abortions or other criminalized forms of reproductive healthcare. Some people on community supervision are forced to wear ankle bracelets that track their movement. “You are constantly drug tested,” noted Dominique Grant, the digital organizer at Women on the Rise, an organization by and for women of color who are targeted by the criminal legal system. “They have the authority and the right to show up (at your home) whenever they want to.”

“On top of everything else,” Fleischman said, people on parole and probation “typically sign Fourth Amendment waivers now,” meaning that they waive their right against being searched without a warrant. The state, he said, could conceivably wiretap your house, record you talking about a future abortion, and use it against you at a probation revocation hearing. 

People on community supervision must ask their parole or probation officer for permission to travel out of state, leaving POs with a troubling amount of discretion over the reproductive choices of their clients under the state’s newly enacted abortion ban. “You have to explain to them what you’re traveling for, how long you’re gone for, and then they now have a record of where you were,” Grant said. “If they don’t like you or if they’re the type of person that believes everyone is a criminal—it can really ruin people’s lives. I’ve seen it happen.”

“I don’t see why a PO would give you permission to go break the law,” Fleischman told Bolts. And the alternative—misrepresenting why you need to leave the state—could constitute a violation in its own right if discovered. Georgia’s Department of Community Supervision didn’t respond to queries about how its officers would handle pregnant people under supervision who want to leave the state to access abortion. 

All of this leaves Georgia’s many residents on parole and probation in an exceptionally tough position if they become pregnant. “This is a group of people who we already know are at risk for poor outcomes in general, and we don’t give them the support they need to have safe pregnancies or stable experiences of motherhood or parenthood,” said Ard with Motherhood Beyond Bars, noting that there are vanishingly few organizations in Georgia that support women on parole or probation during pregnancy. “And now we’re telling them they’ll also have no access to an abortion if pregnancy is not something that they can sustain financially, emotionally, or for any other reason.”

Right now, the women who take maternal health classes at Motherhood Beyond Bars want to be pregnant, despite the additional barriers to accessing maternal healthcare. Soon, though, Ard fears that could change. “The day that I end up with someone in my program who is (in prison) and pregnant because they tried to access a safe abortion and then were prosecuted and criminalized—that will be a very difficult day,” she told Bolts.

“We’re working with a population of people who’ve seen the worst of what society has to offer—they’ve been locked in cages and denied basic civil rights,” said Grant. “No one really feels a thousand percent surprised.” She noted that the ban is not yet in place, and that the state may enshrine protections for abortion if Stacey Abrams wins the gubernatorial election in November. “But if Brian Kemp stays, we already know the direction,” she said.

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