Today the Massachusetts Legislature sent Governor Deval Patrick an important and long-awaited bill to guarantee minimum standards for pregnant women in jail and prison, including strict limits on shackling.
Governor Patrick has ten days to sign the bill into law. He has already said he wants to sign it.
The bill bans the use of any restraints on women during labor and childbirth, period. No exceptions.
The bill bans the use of waist chains and leg irons on women who are pregnant or who have given birth, period. No exceptions. This is one of the most far-reaching protections in any state statute.
The bill allows the use of handcuffs in front of a woman’s body during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy and during postpartum recovery only if a woman presents an immediate threat of harm to herself or others or a credible risk of escape that cannot be controlled in other ways.
The bill requires the state Department of Correction to develop standards for medical care in consultation with the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the state Department of Public Health.
The bill requires the state prison and county jails to provide prenatal and postpartum care, including mental health care, and to have on staff at least one medical professional who is trained in pregnancy care.
The bill also requires appropriate nutrition, vitamins, and supplements, at least one hour a day to walk or exercise, and maternity clothes.
All standards in the bill apply across-the-board to county jails and the state prison.
The final version of the bill excised an important mandate on monitoring and oversight that would have required annual reports, available to the public, about incidents of officers shackling pregnant women.
Some type of oversight is critical to see whether these laws are working. Research in California and Texas found that a large number of county jails never wrote policies to comply with new state statutes against shackling.
What made the difference this time, after so many years of bills being introduced?
“We organized and we started a public conversation,” explained Celia Segel, who manages the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition in her job as Organizing and Political Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
Integral to that new public conversation are the voices of women who have directly experienced pregnancy behind prison walls, including the pain and fear that comes from being shackled.
Michelle was restrained during 18 hours of labor, by her wrist and her ankle. Kenzie was handcuffed during active labor in the back of a police car with no seatbelts. As she slid around on the hard plastic seat, she feared she would not be able to brace herself not to push. What if the baby was born in the backseat? Her concern was not unfounded; she gave birth just eleven minutes after leaving the jail.
Both women became activists for the cause, speaking with the press and at public events to raise awareness and inspire support for the bill.
Michelle hailed policymakers’ work: “Today, the legislature moved us one step closer to making sure that no woman in Massachusetts will ever again experience what I went through when giving birth to my son.”
Reflecting on the campaign, Kenzie said, “I’m excited knowing that my story helped make a difference.”