Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed into law a measure that greatly expands protection against the inhumane and risky practice of restraining women when they are pregnant or have recently had a baby.
Although New York enacted a law in 2009 to prevent the use of restraints on women during labor and childbirth, that did not put a stop to the practice. Research by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York found that 23 of 27 women who gave birth after the law took effect were still restrained.
Moreover, the Correctional Association heard harrowing stories from women of being shackled during hours-long bus rides between prisons and trips to see a doctor outside of prison, and of having to navigate stairs with their hands cuffed and their ankles chained together, a recipe for tripping and falling.
Bolstered by this documentation and the ever-increasing opposition to the use of restraints from medical, legal, and human rights groups, advocates were able to gain support for some of the most expansive protections anywhere in the country: the default is not to restrain pregnant women at all, including during an eight week postpartum recovery period, unless there are “extraordinary circumstances” to justify doing so.
The law also requires training of prison and jail staff -- critical to the success of any new legislation -- and notice to women of their rights, as well as annual reporting of any incidents when prison or jail staff did restrain a pregnant woman. This reporting is essential for policymakers and the public to assess whether the law is working, especially given the poor record of compliance with the earlier law.
The Human Rights of Women and the Work Ahead
As Assemblymember N. Nick Perry says, “Even while paying for crimes they committed, women are still entitled to be treated as human beings and today New York makes a big statement with a clear message that we will respect the human rights of the pregnant women in our prison system.”
Long-time advocate Tamar Kraft-Stolar adds, “This day is the result of years of hard work by many groups and the courageous advocacy of women who experienced first-hand the horror of shackling during pregnancy.” That courageous advocacy included sharing their stories with policymakers and the press in order to help people understand the very real dangers and suffering caused by shackling.
Earlier this year, Maine became the 22nd state to adopt a law to limit the use of restraints on pregnant women, and Minnesota adopted some amendments to its 2014 law, as well as allocating $60,000 over two years to pay for doula services and educational materials for pregnant incarcerated women.
As important as these victories are, they also serve to remind us that a law is only as good as its enforcement, and in the majority of states, women who are incarcerated still have no meaningful protection from the risks of shackling during pregnancy, and often experience medical neglect and hunger. Kraft-Stolar hopes that New York’s law will not only serve as a model for other states but will educate people about prison conditions and “help spur recognition of the need to end mass incarceration of women and all people.”