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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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