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Today, the Massachusetts Legislature sent a resounding message: stop shackling pregnant women.

The Massachusetts House voted 146-0 to ban the shackling of women giving birth and establish other minimum standards for pregnant women in jail and prison.

The vote came just one week after the Senate's unanimous endorsement of a similar bill.

Both votes are historic. Finally given the chance to vote on a bill that has languished in committee for years, every single member of the Legislature stood up for basic standards of decency.

The Massachusetts legislation is significant for its dual focus on medical care and shackling. Ensuring proper prenatal and postpartum care for imprisoned women is a logical extension of the state's commitment to health care for all.

As longtime bill sponsor Rep. Kay Khan said on the House floor, "this whole package of reform is critical."

Now the House and Senate bills go to a conference committee to iron out differences (the final House version will be posted later).

Governor Deval Patrick has already promised to sign the bill.

Unanimous Senate vote

On Thursday afternoon, March 20, the Massachusetts State Senate voted 39-0 in favor of a bill to establish minimum standards for the treatment of pregnant women in prison and jail, including access to medical care and limits on shackling.

(The bill is now known as S.2063.)

After years of being bottled up in committee, the Senate vote is a resounding endorsement of this long-overdue legislation.

As Senator Linda Dorcena Forry said on the floor, “This bill will change lives.”

The measure now goes to the House for consideration.

Read up on the bill in my previous post:

Today, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to issue emergency regulations to put a stop to the shackling of pregnant women in labor.

“Regulation is good but here law would be better,” the governor said. Pledging his support, Governor Patrick added, “I urge the Legislature to send [a bill] to my desk for signature this session.”

That bill, S. 2012, just reported out of the Public Safety Committee, provides broader protection than the emergency regulations.

The bill has two aims: to set standards on medical care for pregnant women in jail and prison and to set clear limits on shackling. The bill includes these important provisions:

  • nutrition and prenatal vitamins
  • prenatal and postpartum care
  • some measure of privacy for women during physical examinations, labor, and childbirth
  • absolutely no restraints during labor and childbirth, or during transportation to a hospital for “labor symptoms”
  • no restraints during the postpartum period in the hospital without “extraordinary circumstances”
  • bans on leg irons and waist chains after the first trimester
  • handcuffs in the front, not behind someone’s back, after the first trimester, and only in “extraordinary circumstances”

The bill defines “extraordinary circumstances” as a corrections officer’s individual determination that a woman poses a serious threat to herself or others or is likely to escape.

In such cases, the officer must “document in writing the reasons for the determination, and the specific type of restraints used,” but the bill doesn’t say who reviews the documentation.

Better oversight would strengthen the bill. In some states, such as Illinois, shackling laws require annual reports to the Legislature or Governor. These reports are available to the public as well (without women’s names).

A public accounting is essential to see whether prisons and jails are following the law.

Which brings us back to the Governor’s point: “Regulation is good but here law would be better.”

People can show their support for a new state law in Massachusetts by signing a petition here.

Background on the Legislation

For more background, here's an earlier post about the bill:

For the first time ever, a bill to improve conditions for pregnant women in jail and prison, including strict limits on shackling, has been voted out of committee in the Massachusetts Legislature.

For a decade, the bill was introduced by a member of the House and assigned to the Judiciary Committee, from which it never emerged.

This session, the bill was also introduced by a member of the Senate and assigned to the Public Safety Committee, which held a hearing in December and voted the bill out of committee on Friday, Feb. 14.

Karen Spilka, sponsor of the senate measure, said, “This bill is an important and necessary step toward improving reproductive health for female prisoners and ensuring safe, healthy outcomes for women and their babies.”

Many on the Public Safety Committee were surprised to learn about the harsh treatment of pregnant women in the state’s prison and jails.

“Oftentimes until these things are brought to our attention we don’t necessarily have visibility on them,” Committee Co-Chair Rep. Harold P. Naughton Jr., said after the hearing in December. “There was an impressive presentation by the people opposing it.”

Safety, Dignity, and Fair Treatment

Advocates emphasize the medical risks created by shackling. “As hard as this is to believe, it is not unusual for pregnant women in Massachusetts jails to be handcuffed to the hospital bed even while in labor,” said Megan Amundson, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. Shackling “puts the woman’s and the fetus’s health at risk.”

Co-founder of the Prison Birth Project Marianne Bullock has worked as a doula and childbirth educator with more than 100 women in the regional women’s jail in Western Massachusetts. “Ending the practice of shackling and restraint of pregnant, laboring and postpartum women in Massachusetts will allow mothers throughout the commonwealth to give birth with dignity,” she said.

Bullock’s comments on dignity highlight another theme of the advocacy campaign—how inhumane it is to shackle pregnant women, especially when they are in labor, giving birth, and taking care of their newborn babies in the hospital.

The bill also addresses the arbitrary treatment to which women are subjected, depending on where they happen to be arrested. “It is absurd that each prison or jail in the Commonwealth has its own policies on whether, when, and how they shackle pregnant women,” said Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The new version of the bill, which may reflect changes made by the Public Safety Committee, has not yet been published by the clerk’s office.

Unlike most bills around the country that address shackling, the Massachusetts bill requires minimum standards of care for pregnant women, including prenatal care and nutrition. California’s 2005 statute also included provisions for medical and dental care for pregnant women in prison and jail.

Galvanizing Support

Now that the bill has cleared its first hurdle, advocates are building on the momentum to shepherd the bill through the rest of the legislative process.

People can show their support by signing a petition here.

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