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“It’s ironic that it’s both shocking and incredibly commonplace,” Jacqueline Robarge says about the shackling of women in labor.

Robarge’s group, Power Inside, works with women affected by incarceration, street life, and abuse in Baltimore and is organizing to put a stop to what the American Medical Association has denounced as a barbaric practice.

This bill would make Maryland the 19th state to pass a law against shackling pregnant women.

About six women in state custody give birth every month in Maryland. No one knows how many women in local jails or juvenile facilities do. Even without knowing the exact number, we know that shackling is an issue because women entering jail are more likely to be pregnant than women entering prison.

To make sure that people really understand what is at stake, women are sharing their personal experiences with shackling. In their accounts, Danielle and Shamira both emphasize how humiliating and traumatizing it was to be restrained when they were giving birth to their children.

Shamira describes being restrained throughout her entire labor and delivery – from the time she was taken to the hospital and shackled to the stretcher while waiting for a bed, through laboring, getting an epidural, and giving birth. The only time she wasn’t restrained was when she used the bathroom – the officer stood in the doorway instead, depriving her of any privacy, even though the bathroom was inside the hospital room with no exit. The restraints cut into her wrists and ankles; she needed to have the cuts treated to prevent infection.

Danielle’s pregnancy went past her due date and she endured two trips to the hospital. First she was taken to the hospital to have her labor induced. The Pitocin caused contractions but not dilation, and after 19 hours, she was taken back to prison. She had to climb in and out of the prison van, still restrained, still having contractions.

When Danielle was taken to the hospital a week later, she again labored in shackles, until the doctor persuaded the officer to remove them as she was literally pushing her baby out. This officer insisted that Danielle remain cuffed at the hands or feet when going to the bathroom. Because she needed to be able to use her hands, Danielle was chained at the feet, and “super nervous” about falling as she “shuffled” along a few inches at a time.

On Tuesday February 26, the Maryland General Assembly will hold a hearing on a bill to prevent other women from going through what Shamira and Danielle suffered. Broad in scope, HB0829:

  • applies to state prisons, local jails, and juvenile detention facilities
  • prohibits shackling during labor and delivery
  • prohibits shackling during the second and third trimesters unless corrections authorities make an individual determination that a woman presents a security risk
  • bans the use of waist chains and leg restraints
  • emphasizes the role of medical professionals to determine when a woman can be released from the hospital and taken back to prison or jail

Finally, in order to give the bill teeth, it requires that corrections agencies document in writing the reasons for restraining women under the allowed exceptions and report those reasons to the governor and the legislature.

On a recent broadcast of The Marc Steiner Show, the bill’s sponsor Mary Washington, Power Inside director Jacqueline Robarge, and ACLU attorney Sonia Kumar explained the need for the General Assembly to take action. Although the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services recently revised its policy on shackling, these experts all agree that a state law confers greater protection against the “tide turning” back with changes in administration. It’s harder to change a law than a department policy, and if this bill is enacted, it will create a means to monitor implementation of the law.

Finally, as Kumar points out, there is the difference between policy and practice. According to a recent report in The Miami New Times, for example, a woman in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons was shackled when she was in labor in 2010.

Her lawyer told the paper that shackling violates international law. Of more immediate significance, it violates Bureau of Prisons policy, which was changed in 2008 to prevent shackling during labor.

First step: Enact statutory protections and oversight mechanisms. Second step: Ensure they are implemented.

And then: Do it 31 more times so that women can give birth safely, no matter what state they live in.

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Shamira can be heard at the end of The Marc Steiner Show, around the 42-minute mark. Danielle can be heard early in the show, or seen and heard here at Stop Shackling Pregnant Women In Maryland.

You can follow the campaign here and show your support here.

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Update: You can read about the hearing here.

As a cautionary note, the Des Moines Register reports that the Legislature in Iowa has tabled a bill to set limits on shackling in response to a new policy written by the Department of Corrections.

“I believe that they are following the best practices at this moment in time and hopefully going forward,” House Human Resources Committee Chairwoman Linda Miller said.

As those organizing for change in Maryland and other states know, statutes afford greater protection of people’s rights than internal department policies. Monitoring and public oversight definitely outweigh hope.

P.S. Although legislation has been “tabled” in the Iowa House, a bill is still alive in the state Senate. The bill would place limits on shackling and also contains provisions to allow women to have a support person with them when they are in the hospital to give birth.


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