Prison bill provokes testy gender debate in Louisiana House
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana lawmaker sparked complaints Thursday that he disrespected women by criticizing legislation that recommends how female prisoners should be treated.
The bill up for debate would require female prisoners to have access to feminine hygiene products at no cost, amid concerns some women have been forced to pay for them. The measure would limit when male prison guards can conduct a pat-down or body-cavity search on a woman. And new guidelines would describe how male guards should enter areas where women may be undressed.
Rep. Kenny Havard, a St. Francisville Republican, responded with an amendment to place similar limits on how female prison guards could deal with male prisoners. The proposal provoked an outcry and some shouting from female lawmakers, and Havard withdrew the amendment before the House ultimately approved the bill.
“Rep. Havard, have you ever been a woman?” Rep. Julie Stokes asked during the debate.
“I was at Halloween one time,” Havard replied.
Stokes, a Kenner Republican, then told him that women have “biological things” that make life “a bit harder.”
“In my opinion, you’re disrespecting women,” Stokes told Havard.
Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, echoed the complaints, citing rapes of female inmates.
Men get raped in prison, too, Havard replied.
Havard said he was merely trying to make a point that men and women should be treated equally. He also raised concerns that the bill could make it harder to monitor female prisoners for contraband and other improper activities. And he complained about news coverage of earlier comments he made about having too many female prison guards for male prisoners.
“My point that I’m trying to make here is we have to find a way to fund these prisons so we aren’t short-handed,” Havard said.
After Havard withdrew his amendment, the bill sponsored by Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat, passed with a vote of 86-0.
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras chastised his colleagues: “OK, members, we’re getting to the end of the day. The decorum is falling apart.”
This isn’t the first time Havard’s comments have drawn complaints. Two years ago, Havard provoked outrage when he joked that strippers should be in their 20s and no more than 160 pounds, during debate on a bill aimed at combating human trafficking by blocking strip clubs from hiring dancers younger than 21.
Havard called it a joking commentary on government regulation. Female colleagues called it offensive.
The measure dealing with treatment of female prisoners now goes to the Senate to consider the House changes, before it can reach the governor’s desk.
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