California extends shackling ban for pregnant incarcerated women

Woman holding baby with words "no more shackles"

For three years now advocates in California have been working to extend the ban on shackling pregnant incarcerated women to include shackling during transport as well as labor and delivery. The ban on shackling during labor was already on the books, and this policy, which passed the legislature two years in a row before being vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger and then Governor Brown, was finally signed on Friday.

While shackling during labor gets the most media attention, it’s not the only problem that pregnant women in prison face.

I wrote more about this for Colorlines last year, but pregnant people in prison face many challenges: inadequate nutrition, exercise, prenatal care. Then once the baby is born many get no time with the child to breastfeed or bond, some children are automatically put into the child welfare system and sent to foster families.

I’m really glad to see the momentum building in our favor when it comes to the treatment of pregnant women in prison–but let’s remember for a second where these practices come from: they are based on the way men are treated in prison. W0men used to be a rarity in prisons and jails, a trend reversed in recent decades with the war on drugs. When women’s prisons cropped up with more frequency, many of the practices and policies that had applied in men’s prisons were simply transferred to the women.

Should anyone be shackled in prison? Is that a humane way to treat anyone, pregnant or not?

Should men be shackled when transported for court visits or medical procedures? Or women who aren’t pregnant? I don’t want these policy changes to simply be an exception for pregnant women–I want them to encourage us to reconsider how we treat everyone in our criminal “justice” system.

Congrats to everyone in California who worked on this bill year after year!


Florida becomes the first Southeastern state to pass anti-shackling legislation

Last week, a bill banning the shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth passed through the Florida legislature.

The Miami-based group Mobile Midwife did a lot of advocacy to get the bill through all it’s phases of votes and committees, and the co-director Jamarah Abdullah Amani has a piece in the Huffington Post about the practice of shackling:

As a Black woman, this both infuriates and saddens me. As a midwife, health educator and mother of three, I have given birth, as well as helped many families welcome their babies into loving arms. It baffles me that we, as a society, allow the horrific practice of shackling to continue without more outrage. Anyone who has had a baby, or has been a witness to the experience, knows that in labor and birth, we must walk through the fire of who we are to become who we will be as mothers and parents. This journey is challenging and fulfilling, scary and exhilarating. It means different things to different families, but what it should not signify is torture and humiliation.

Although the passage of this bill in Florida was a definite win, the fight continues in the rest of the states where no such bans exist:

As we, birth activists, kept late nights and early mornings working on this bill from Miami, Fl, a colleague who is also one of my dearest friends, Paris Hatcher, Executive Director of SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, was working on a similar bill in Atlanta, Ga. It became kind of a race between the two of us to see which of our states could secure this basic human right for women first. Of course, we had hoped that both of our bills would pass this session.

Florida’s bill is now set to become law this week, while Georgia’s bill is still struggling to get out of committee. “We are excited about this victory in Florida and the potential this action means for Georgia,” states Hatcher. “But what is truly exciting is building a regional movement for Reproductive Justice based on principles of relationship building and amplifying the voices of those who are often forgotten in public policy.”

Although it’s unfortunate that it takes such a horrific practice to get positive support for a birth and reproductive justice issue, I’m beyond delighted to have wins to celebrate in today’s political climate.

Anti-shackling policy and organizing training this weekend in Amherst, MA

Just saw notice about this training happening this weekend in Amherst Massachussetts. Sounds incredible, definitely worth going to if you’re in the area and care about stopping the practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant women.

Join The Prison Birth Project, The Peace Development Fund & WORTH for A Training on Anti-Shackling Policy and Organizing

A day long training to start to mobilize an on the ground movement to support current Anti-shackling legislation. Learn about legislation that PBP is working on, the current political climate and how to organize from a grassroots to a statewide level from organizers who have passed this legislation in other states. Help strategize and build the campaign to pass legislation that supports women everywhere.

Trainers will include: Tina Reynolds from Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH) who have worked/passed Antishackling in other states. Members of The Prison Birth Project as well as members of the ACLU and a local lobbyists.

Saturday December 3, 2011
Peace Development Fund
44 N. Prospect St. Amherst

RSVP to: with RSVP as the subject.

Childcare provided with RSVP please let us know in the email how many children and ages.

They also provided this additional information about their efforts:

More than 8,000 women are incarcerated each year in Mass. 85% of those women are mothers and about 6% of them are pregnant during their incarceration.

The Prison Birth Project provides support education and advocacy with women and girls at this intersection of incarceration and motherhood. This year our members had a say in the writing of HB 2234 “An Act Relative to Safe Pregnancies and Relate Health Care for Female Inmates”. This bill has been introduced in an effort to provide minimum standards of care for women while incarcerated. It would ensure that pregnant women would not be restrained during labor and pregnancy and receive basic prenatal care and family planning information. Can’t make it? but want to be a part of the coalition to pass this legislation? Email and let us know!

For more about the anti-shackling efforts in MA, check out my recent article for Colorlines.

California Governor vetoes bill limiting use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated women

California Governor Brown vetoed a bill yesterday that would have limited the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated women during transport. A ban on using restraints during labor already exists. The bill passed the legislature with overwhelming support, and likely received a veto because the California State Sheriff’s Association decided to push heavily against the bill.

From the Governor’s veto message:

At first blush, I was inclined to sign this bill because it certainly seems inapprpriate to shackle a pregnant inmate unless absolutely necessary. Hovwever, the language of this measure goes too far, prhohibiting no only hsackling, but also the use of handcuffs or restraints of any kind except under ill-defined circumstances.

Let’s be clear. Inmates, whether pregnant or not, need to be transported in a manner that is safe for them and others. The restrictive criteria set forth in this bill go beyond what is necessary to protect the health and dignity or pregnant inmates and will only serve to sow confusion and invite lawsuits.

This is really disappointing news, and further proof that the health and safety of pregnant incarcerated women is not a priority. The fact that he attempted to say that the use of handcuffs or restraints could actually be needed to “be transported in a manner that is safe for them” is appalling.

In my article for Colorlines last week, I talked to Marianne Bullock, a prison doula and co-founder of the Prison Birth Project. She had this to say about the danger of restraints during transport:

Marianne Bullock, cofounder of the Massachusetts-based Prison Birth Project, offers an anecdote from across the country illustrating why shackling during transport is an acute problem. As a doula who has been working within a Springfield prison for the last four years, Bullock and the other members of the Prison Birth Project see exactly how incarcerated pregnant women are treated. Even though their facility doesn’t shackle women during childbirth, shackles are still used during transport, especially postpartum. Bullock recounts one woman that she supported during labor who ended up with a full episiotomy (an incision to widen the vaginal opening) to deal with her baby’s shoulder dystocia.

“Twenty-four hours later she was shackled foot-to-foot and walked out of the hospital,” she remembered. “It’s so dangerous to have a woman walking shackled, with who knows how many stitches.”

Congrats to everyone in California for such an impressive push getting this bill through, and here is to hoping that it gets through next time.

Lawyer to shackle herself during childbirth to protest shackling of incarcerated women

In my latest article for Colorlines Magazine, I write about the efforts to prevent prisons and jails (and detention centers) from shackling incarcerated pregnant women. What inspired me to write about this issue, which has been covered pretty extensively by the progressive media in the past, were Rebecca Brodie’s plans to shackle herself during her own birth as a protest of the practice. From the article:

Rebecca Brodie sits in her suburban Massachusetts home, talking on the phone with me while her family member sits nearby, filming the interview. The oldest female correctional facility in the United States, MCI-Framingham, is just a short eight-minute drive away. “When I conceived my third child earlier this year, it really hit home for me because everywhere I go I pass the prison,” Brodie explained. “I have all these choices and opportunities: who do I want in the room with me, do I want a water birth, or a home birth? Obviously the incarcerated women can’t make these choices.”

The proximity of the women’s prison and Brodie’s pro-bono legal work with incarcerated women is what inspired the protest she’s planning for December, when her third child is born. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be laboring and delivering her baby in metal restraints that restrict her arms and legs. She’s planning to simulate the same conditions that many incarcerated pregnant women face when delivering in state prisons and jails, including some of the women housed at the prison right by her home.

I’m still not sure what I think about Brodie’s plans. It’s an extreme form of protest, one that involves much spectacle (and a documentary to boot). But what it was clear everyone I talked to cares about the most is bringing attention to this horrific practice in hopes of ending it.

Only 14 states specifically ban the practice, and even those states don’t necessarily ban the use of shackles during transport. Governor Brown in California has a bill waiting on his desk for signature that would ban the practice during transport as well. The more work I do in the field of social justice the more I believe that the practices of our criminal justice system are some of the most dire issues we face today. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, and the treatment of people on the inside brings up many, many human rights questions.

I’m glad I was able to talk to one of the founders of volunteer doula program that I seriously admire, Marianne Bullock from the Prison Birth Project, for this article. Marianne and the other PBP folks work at a prison in Massachusetts, trying to address the myriad challenges moms on the inside face, including shackling.

Read the full article here.

California Governor Schwarzenegger vetoes anti-shackling bill

Activists in California have been pushing hard to pass a piece of legislation, California Bill AB 1900, that would outlaw the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women in CA prisons.

The bill was particularly good because it also covered shackling during transport to appointments as well as labor and delivery. It had overwhelming support, as most of these bills have had, but Governor Schwarzenegger decided to veto the bill.

It’s a big disappointment, but the good news is there will be a new Governor in California come November and folks can try again.

Read more in this op-ed from one of the advocates of the bill.

Shackling of pregnant incarcerated women covered by NPR

Last week, NPR ran a story about the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women. It’s an issue we know well by now, but the mainstream attention it’s getting is important.

You can listen to or read the story here.

The movement to outlaw shackling is gaining traction, and unlike much of what we work on, this issue has few opponents (not none, but few).

But even when we are able to push through legislative measures, the fight doesn’t end there. Enforcement of these measures is really difficult, because of the complicated system of authority in prisons. Procedure can be decided by one authority figure in the prison.

A doula I know who works with incarcerated women recently explained to me that putting restrictions on shackling isn’t enough. It isn’t just about shackling during delivery, or even labor, but also during routine medical exams for folks who are pregnant and folks who are not.

The bottom line is that we can’t stop just with these policies. It’s connected to the broader issue of how folks are treated when they are incarcerated, and how we make sure these changes get enforced.

For more background check out this article by Anna Clark at RH Reality Check.

Washington state anti-shackling bill signed by Governor

Via Seattle Times:

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday signed a bill that will forbid state prisons, county jails and juvenile correctional facilities from shackling nearly all female inmates who are in labor or recovering from labor.

The law, which goes into effect June 10, also bans the use of waist chains and leg irons at any point in pregnancy and limits restraints on pregnant inmates who are being transported during their third trimester of pregnancy.


Despite ban, shackling of incarcerated women continues in Pennsylvania

More news on the shackling front. The good news is that this horrific practice is finally getting some much needed media attention. The bad news is that it still happens, despite policy changes that are meant to eradicate the practice.

Philadelphia Weekly has an in-depth article about one woman’s experience being shackled during labor for over 17 hours. She even has scars on her ankles to prove it.

I was happy to see that she had a doula with her, who tried to get the shackles taken off, to no avail.

The descriptions of Torres’ experience are really horrific. I admire her courage for telling her story, with the hope that it will never happen again.

Being shackled during labor was just one of many dehumanizing moments Torres says she endured: When she was transported outside of the prison, a chain was wrapped two times around her body, just below her breasts and above her stomach, and then placed into a lockbox where her wrists were secured with handcuffs. A confident and careful speaker, Torres intermittently pauses to reflect on her story’s implications. “The squatting and the coughing [to search for hidden drugs and weapons]… I did even at nine months pregnant.”

These stories just further reveal a truth that many of us ignore–the dehumanizing and unjust practices of the criminal justice system. It isn’t just pregnant women who need to be treated better in prison.

In reaction to stories like these, a PA legislator, Senator David Leach, has introduced legislation to ban the practice.

The article also highlights the amazing work of three doulas working at Riverside Correctional Facility. I’ve been seeing an increasing number of doulas looking to work with incarcerated women as folks reveal the conditions that women often labor under. This program is even staffed by paid doulas–the other programs I know are volunteer.

Danyell Williams sleeps with her cell phone like a doctor with her omnipresent pager. The 37-year-old Philadelphia native and her three staff members—all trained doulas—are each on call for two weeks every other month, rushing to the hospital when they get word of an impending birth. Over last year’s Fourth of July weekend, Williams worked through 23 sleepless hours of labor.

MOMobile’s program at Riverside is groundbreaking. “We’re one of the only ones in the country,” says Williams. Since the beginning of the doula program in November 2006, MOMobile has attended 42 births.

The doulas are the only intimate human contact that jailed women have while giving birth. “When you’re incarcerated, the only people allowed in are security staff and MOMobile,” says Williams.

The good news of all of this is that there has been little opposition to legislation looking to ban the practice. The challenge comes with the bureaucracy of the prisons and the chain of command that often ignores legislation and procedural changes.

Read the whole piece here.

Thanks to New Voices Pittsburgh and La’Tasha Mayes for the link.

Washington State: Only 30% of incarcerated women are shackled during labor

The Superintendent of the Corrections Center for Women (the only one in WA state that houses pregnant women) said 30% of women are shackled during labor in a recent MSNBC article.

Only 30%?! Wow, how nice of them.

Bills have been introduced in the Washington State House and Senate that would outlaw the inhumane practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant women during labor and delivery. The laws would prevent the use of any types of restraints on pregnant women who are incarcerated.

Let’s hope this law passes, so 30% can become zero.

Thanks to Peggy at Open Arms for the heads up!