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Advocates for the humane treatment of women are taking their fight onto the world stage, asking the United Nations to hold our government accountable for ensuring human rights here at home by ending the shackling of pregnant women.

And in the nation's power center, the D.C. Council is considering legislation to do just that.

Human Rights Obligations

In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, known as the ICCPR. By doing so, the U.S. government pledged to abide by the treaty’s standards and principles.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee monitors countries’ compliance with the ICCPR, which covers a range of critical areas, including the operation of the criminal justice system, the use of detention, and the treatment of people confined in prison.

The Committee has recommended since 2006 that the U.S. prohibit the shackling of pregnant women. Leading medical authorities support a ban on shackling because it jeopardizes women’s health and the safety of their pregnancies.

In preparation for the upcoming meeting with U.S. representatives, the Committee specifically asked the U.S. government whether it intends to “prohibit the shackling of detained pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and post-delivery, under all circumstances.”

Documenting the Problem

To inform the Committee about ongoing problems, three organizations wrote a “shadow report” about shackling [the organizations are the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago, the ACLU National Prison Project, and  Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM)].

The report provides a snapshot of current law and practice. Today, 18 states have laws that limit the use of restraints on pregnant women.

Law professor Brian Citro, one of the authors of the shadow report, explains in a blog post that shackling is a double violation – it is both cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under the ICCPR and cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.

Shackling also violates the human right to be free from discrimination because women of color are disproportionately imprisoned and disproportionately suffer from the degrading and dangerous practice.

Critically, the report recommends that the federal government and all 50 states enact legislation rather than leaving it to prison agencies to come up with their own policies.

Laws are codified and available to the public. In contrast, prison officials frequently withhold policies from the public, claiming it would jeopardize security to share them.

Furthermore, laws must be amended or repealed by the legislature. Prison officials can change policies whenever they like – without informing the public.

The report also recommends that strong standards be set to counter the current mix of approaches adopted by the states, some of which offer only minimal protections with no means of oversight or enforcement.

Protecting Women’s Rights in the Nation’s Capital

In related news, Councilmember David Grosso recently introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant women in the District of Columbia.

The comprehensive bill applies to women and teenagers in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections, police, Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services, or halfway houses.

Each of these government entities would be required to report on any instances of shackling contrary to the law as part of regular ongoing oversight by the D.C. Council. This provision mirrors the shadow report – laws are only effective if they are implemented and monitored.

Since 1995, the D.C. jails have been subject to a federal consent decree to limit the use of restraints on pregnant women.

Grosso’s bill goes further than the consent decree by banning the use of restraints on women throughout pregnancy and the entire six-week post-partum period; indeed, this provision, if adopted, will set a new standard of safety for imprisoned women and girls.

As Grosso explains:

This is not a problem that will remedy itself… It is important that the Council addresses its responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable to adverse treatment especially when no one is watching. I believe that we must have safeguards in place to recognize that punishment for a crime does not equate to the loss of an individual’s right to appropriate safety measures, medical attention, and personal dignity. 

After a wave of success over the past four years, no state has enacted a new law this year.

The United States meetings with the U.N. Human Rights Committee provide a valuable opportunity to raise the issue of U.S. commitment to human rights for some of its most vulnerable people.


Click here and scroll down to the heading for the United States to find the materials submitted for the upcoming meetings in Geneva in October.

Update: The United States government requested a delay in its meeting with the U.N. Human Rights Committee because of the government shutdown.


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