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“The jail I volunteer in told me they don’t shackle, but I have stood between a corrections officer and a woman in labor” to prevent her from being restrained – this is what Marianne Bullock, childbirth educator, doula, and co-founder of the Prison Birth Project, told legislators in Massachusetts today.

For the past few years, I have been chronicling campaigns around the country to stop the practice of shackling pregnant women. Now I’m excited to report on a hearing I participated in right in my own state.

Today’s hearing in the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security included two bills to improve conditions for pregnant women in jail and prison, along with a bill to limit the use of solitary confinement and a number of other measures.

Shackling is the Norm in Massachusetts

Marianne Bullock told a rapt audience:

“My clients are brought to the hospital in handcuffs or leg irons, in the back of a police car, with hard metal seats and no seat belt – more often than not in the throes of active labor. A handful have delivered only minutes after they arrive at the hospital. They undergo vaginal exams in labor with a leg or wrist shackled to the bed…. After they give birth, they often shower with legs chained together, they shuffle across the room in leg irons to give their babies their first baths and then what is often the most devastating moment of all – when they hand their baby over to a caregiver, they are put back in five-point restraints.”

Lauren Petit, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services, explained that women in the custody of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) are shackled in five-point restraints – ankles together, hands cuffed together and to a chain around their growing bellies – until the third trimester, when they are handcuffed and shackled at the ankles but no longer chained around the waist.

Getting to the hospital or any medical appointment outside of the prison often involves being jostled in a van, shackled, with no seatbelts for stability.

DOC policy calls for women to be shackled to the bed by one wrist or ankle when they are in the hospital – even when they are giving birth.

While the specific policies and practices vary across the state, one thing seems clear – the norm is to shackle women unless someone intervenes.

Senator James Eldrigde acknowledged this problem with a personal story. He described getting a phone call one night when he was a relatively new legislator. A social worker was asking for help on behalf of a client who was pregnant, in labor, and about to give birth in shackles. He called the sheriff at 10:00 p.m. to ask for the officer to remove the restraints.

The purpose of the proposed legislation is to upend the current norm so that women will not be shackled unless there is an individualized determination that restraints are needed in a particular case.

The Committee Vice Chair, Representative Michael Brady, said, “It just shocks me [that] this still happens in this day and age” in what is often regarded as the most liberal state in the nation.

Brady’s colleagues on the Committee looked similarly aghast.

Putting a Stop to Shackling

S. 1171  would establish minimum standards for the treatment of pregnant women, including the provision of medical care and limits on the use of restraints.

S. 1125 is a stand-alone bill to limit the use of restraints.

Both bills would restrict shackling. The provisions on shackling:

  • apply to state prisons and local jails
  • prohibit shackling after the first trimester and immediately postpartum, unless corrections officers make an individual determination that a woman presents a risk of escape or injuring herself or others
  • require that officers remove all restraints at the request of the medical professionals treating the woman
  • ban the use of waist chains and leg restraints

As the stories relayed at the hearing show, the vagaries of geography dictate the type and degree of shackling a woman will be subject to, because individual jails and prisons set their own policies.

A state statute is needed to set one clear standard for all institutions that confine women.

State statutes afford more protection than internal policies or executive orders because they can’t simply be changed by the next administration – they have to be revisited by policymakers in a public process.

While the Massachusetts bills under consideration offer broad protection, they can be enhanced by: 1) explicitly applying those safeguards to young women in juvenile prison facilities, and 2) adding stronger reporting and oversight mechanisms to make it possible to track and address any violations of the law.

A wide range of health and human rights organizations from ACOG to the United Nations oppose shackling pregnant women because it exposes them to danger and is not necessary for public safety.

Our courts agree. Earlier this year, in Juana Villegas’s case against the city of Nashville, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal wrote that:

“[T]he shackling of pregnant detainees while in labor offends contemporary standards of human decency such that the practice violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain’—i.e., it poses a substantial risk of serious harm. The universal consensus from the courts to have addressed this issue as well as the chorus of prominent organizations condemning the practice demonstrates that, without any extenuating circumstances, shackling women during labor runs afoul of the protections of the Eighth Amendment.”

Or as Andrea James, Executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing, put it at the hearing, it’s a “basic matter of human rights.”

Guaranteeing Appropriate Prenatal and Postpartum Care

Massachusetts has been a leader in health care reform, but those policy changes did not affect medical care in prison.

S. 1171  would involve the Department of Public Health in establishing standards for prenatal care and postpartum care. Strong standards are essential because incarcerated people are wholly dependent on the prison or jail to meet their medical needs – they can’t shop around for a provider or do research on the Internet or take themselves to an emergency room.

Lauren Petit of Prisoners’ Legal Services testified about an 18 year-old in a state prison who never got any birthing classes, despite being incarcerated for most of her pregnancy: “She had no knowledge of what she was going to experience in childbirth.” Another woman in prison spent several months waiting to get any prenatal care.

Ensuring appropriate medical care for pregnant women in jail and prison is essential in its own right; it also advances the state’s goal of ensuring health equity and reducing health disparities.

Getting Involved in the Work Ahead

NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts spearheaded the organizing for the hearing, at which a diverse group of organizations made the case for the two bills, including the Prison Birth Project, Prisoners’ Legal Services, Families for Justice as Healing, Black and Pink, and the state affiliates of the ACLU and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Other organizations and individuals submitted written testimony, including the state chapters of the National Organization for Women and the National Lawyers Guild, Health Care for All, Health Law Advocates, the Prison Policy Initiative, the Real Cost of Prisons Project, and and physicians and midwives. (I also testified.)

Massachusetts has two-year sessions, and the work will continue in 2014.

If you live in the Bay State and want to get involved, contact Celia Segel at NARAL at celia [at] prochoicemass [dot] org.

The Last Word

Marianne Bullock closed her testimony with this story:

“Last night I asked a member [of the Prison Birth Project] what she wanted to share about her birth story. She said, ‘I just want people to understand how out of control it felt, how devastating and hard it was to be handcuffed and not be able to labor naturally, I felt like I was laboring on the demand of the DOC – I just want no mother ever again to be in shackles when she gives birth to her baby.’”


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