State of abandonment: In England, women in prison give birth without midwife. Who cares?

On Tuesday, November 13, The Guardian reported “women are giving birth in prison cells without access to proper medical care.” The report was based on extensive research conducted by Dr. Laura Abbott, specialist midwife and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. On Friday, The Guardian followed up with an anonymous report by a woman who had suffered childbirth in prison. Other news venues have since picked up on the report, as has at least one Member of Parliament. While the reports draw attention to the violence committed directly and regularly on women and children in prison, they miss a salient feature of Dr. Abbott’s research, the failure, or refusal, of the State to acknowledge that there are pregnant women prisoners and women who give birth while in prison. That second issue is integral to the State of Abandonment, a State that “accelerates the death of the unwanted” through a policy of unmapping: “Zones of abandonment … determine the life course of an increasing number of poor people who are not part of mapped populations.”

After interviewing “28 female prisoners in England who were pregnant, or had recently given birth whilst imprisoned, ten members of staff, and ten months of non-participant observation”, Laura Abbott found “institutional thoughtlessness”; “institutional ignominy”; women’s coping strategies; and the ways in which women navigate the system to negotiate entitlements and seek information about their rights”. Pregnant women prisoners are both forgotten and shamed. This is how the State practices intersectionality.

At the center of Abbott’s research is a woman called Layla. When she entered prison, Layla was 24 weeks pregnant with what would be her second child. Typical of most of the women interviewed, “Layla was incarcerated for the first time for her very first offence. Similar to most participants, she was distressed as she entered prison, was unaware of her rights and entitlements and did not know what would happen with regards to her midwifery care: `I didn’t know whether I was going to see a midwife, I didn’t know anything. I was absolutely distraught’. Layla was unaware of the process of applying for a place on an MBU (Mother Baby Unit): `None of the officers spoke to me about it (MBU), I just had to go off and do it all myself’”..

When Layla lost her `mucous plug’, she was sent to the health care nurse: “Health care were like, ‘Oh, you’re fine, you’ve got at least another seven to ten days before anything will happen …  I was trying to explain … to health care, they were just like, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ and I was like, ‘No, really, I know my own body … They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll sort that out when and if you go into labour”.  

At 11 pm that same night, Layla started having contractions. By midnight, the contractions were coming on strong. A nurse came to her cell. Layla said she was in labor; the nurses doubted her and, finally, “`I’m telling you I am in labour,’ ‘No, you’re not. Here’s some paracetamol and a cup of tea”.At 12:30 the nurses left. At 12:40 Layla’s waters broke. Then the nurses decided to send Layla to hospital. Layla had to explain to the nurses that it was too late: “I says, ‘I haven’t got time to get to hospital. I did say to you I was in labour …`I was laid there on my bed, in my cell with a male nurse and a female nurse, not midwifery trained at all, trying to put gas and air in my mouth and I’m like, ‘I don’t want anything, I need to feel awake and I need to concentrate,’ and then out popped (baby)at twenty past one. Still no ambulance, still no paramedics and she came out foot first”.

Layla’s story is typical of the systemic abuse pregnant women prisoners receive in the prisons of England and Wales. But there’s more. In the first paragraph of her report, Dr. Abbott notes, “A review of women’s prisons in 2006 found that most women prisoners were mothers, some were pregnant, and many came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Accurate numbers of pregnant women held in UK prisons are not recorded, though it is estimated that 6% to 7% of the female prison population are at varying stages of pregnancy and around 100 babies are born to incarcerated women each year.” As The Guardian notes, “Neither the Ministry of Justice nor the NHS collects the data.”

While in prison, Layla, and many other pregnant women, were treated abysmally. At the same time, officially, they were never there. England and Wales are famous for nationwide systems of hyper-surveillance and personal data collection. As a so-called “total institution”, prisoners are under intensive surveillance, down to the filaments of their DNA. And yet the State “forgot” to note either pregnant women prisoners or women prisoners in childbirth. Where there is no data, there are no bodies.  What do you call the institutional erasure, through omission and refusal, of an entire and growing population of women? Call it femicide.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)

Shackling pregnant women prisoners violates the law and women’s rights!

This past session, Maryland passed anti-shackling bill HB 27. It took two years to pass a bill that protects pregnant inmates from being shackled. The Maryland bill passed along with one in Massachusetts, making these the 19th and 20th states to have such legislation. A number of states have passed anti-shackling bills restricting the use of restraints. Still, these bills don’t guarantee protection of the right for dignity of pregnant inmates, especially considering that most pregnant inmates are African Americans, Latinas, American Indians or members of other stigmatized communities.

The Maryland bill was enacted on July 1, and already the question of monitoring and enforcement has emerged. Why? In the states where these “anti Shackling” bills have been enacted, women detainees are still being shackled.

Recently, some cases of shackled pregnant or post partum inmates made the news, in horrific cases of women who were degraded in the process and had long term health consequences or were put at risk of having complications for being shackled during pregnancy, labor or post partum. Equally shocking is that the reasons or justifications given ranged from lack of training of personnel in charge to lack of enforcement power attached to the bill. According to one report, “Many correctional systems, doctors, guards and prison officials simply are not told about anti-shackling laws, or are not trained to comply”

How can professionals in charge of women prisoners ignore what constitutes torture, despite “modern” means of communication? Speculators can place financial orders to make enormous amount of money in a nanosecond, but a bill that forbids torture needs so much effort to be understood? What type of training is needed to see that a pregnant women walking with chains or having chains around her waist is torture?

Despite anti-shackling legislation, pregnant women in Texas are constantly at risk of being shackled. New York passed an anti-shackling law in 2009. Recently, in a survey of 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons, 23 said that they have been shackled before, during or right after their delivery.

The women prison population is on the rise. The official language is that the vast majority goes to prison for non-violent offenses. The reality is their social position makes them more vulnerable to being punished for pitiful reasons. Meanwhile the punishment inside the prison is constant and degrading. Abuses go from restricting the number of maxi pads for periods per month and per woman, unless the woman pays for more, to restricting motherhood, making it difficult to keep contact with already born children as well as guaranteeing decent conditions for pregnancy, delivery and post partum recovery.

70% of incarcerated women are mothers, and about 6% are pregnant. Still, women inmates are treated like men. In Maryland during the discussion of the anti-shackling bill, testimonies arguing against the bill presented possibility of escape as a major risk. All the “evidence” concerned men’s attempts to escape while being transported to hospital. No one said anything to correct this. Women who are pregnant don’t escape. There has been no incident of women in labor escaping or causing harm.

The anti-shackling bills have also a tendency to be weak in the protection of pregnant women. In Maryland a series of amendments dulled the impact of the introduced bill. The language – including recognition of the conditions of pregnancy, the importance to comply with international human rights principles, and more precisions about the monitoring of use of restraints if deemed necessary of HB 27 – was crossed out. Still, this bill is important, and it is what we have in Maryland. All efforts should now go to monitoring the application and enforcement of the bill so pregnant inmates are not left alone to deal with abuses.

So far, when pregnant or post partum inmates are shackled in anti-shackling states, the response is a lawsuit. “But there is no policing entity that’s really going to hold these institutions responsible.”

The conclusion should be clear and should include the entire United States. The United States should pass a clear federal law that prohibits shackling pregnant incarcerated women. Why not become more human and make the incarceration of pregnant women more difficult if not impossible? Why not stop the cycle of violence and torture? Women’s right to dignity has to be defended at the national level. A right is a right, and a law to protect women’s dignity is a law!

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

Did Mother’s Day end early this year?

 

Mother’s Day seemed to end early and abruptly this year.

In Australia, under the proposed new national budget, women who have a child, otherwise known as mothers, face paying 30% more on student loans than their male counterparts. No matter that another government policy encourages women to have three children, one for ma, one for pa, and for the nation down the road: “These aren’t choices we force on men. These are penalties we extract from women, based on their gender.”

Speaking of penalties, this week, the Pennsylvania ACLU revealed that in Pennsylvania, pregnant women prisoners are routinely shackled, including during childbirth. Pennsylvania is one of the states that actually has a law, the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, which prohibits this kind of treatment. That law was passed in 2010. The ACLU has written to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania asking her to `clarify the law.’

Speaking of clarifying the law, Marissa Alexander still can’t catch a break. For having shot once in the air and not endangered anyone, in order to ward off an abusive partner, Marissa Alexander still faces a possible 60 years behind bars. While her lawyers may have all sorts of new evidence, the prosecuting attorney says the evidence isn’t new enough and the judge is worried about the precedent set by having a second Stand Your Ground hearing. Happy Mother’s Day.

But for the women farmworkers of Immokalee, it may just be a Mother’s Day to celebrate. For the fourth year in a row, farmworker mothers, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, stormed the ramparts of Publix, armed to the teeth with hope, a vision of a decent and dignified future for all, a dream of industrial democracy, and a letter, which read:

“May 11, 2014
Mother’s Day

To Publix:

We are farmworker women.  This is the fourth celebration of Mother’s Day in which we are writing to Publix to ask that you join the Fair Food Program.

As mothers, we work in the fields to support our families, especially to help our children through school.

As mothers, we do not make enough to fully support our family.  And the little that we do make is not easy to earn: We work under the sun and rain of Florida.  We do everything so that you can have tomatoes:  we plant, we tie up the plants, we harvest, and then we do it all again the next season.  In spite of all that, it seems that you do not understand and do not want to hear the voice of farmworkers.

Publix profits from the sweat of those of us who work in the fields.  We deserve respect and we deserve a fair wage.

Now is the time to join the Fair Food Program to protect the rights of workers and ensure a fair wage, with the penny per pound that 12 other corporations are already paying.  What are you waiting for, Publix?

Sincerely,

The Women’s Group of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers”

After deliver the letter, Lupe Gonzalo reported, “Publix presumes to say that they support families — but in reality, we don’t see this support. And we are not afraid to tell them that what they are saying is not true.  We are not afraid to come and protest in front of their stores.  Because we are speaking the truth, with our heads held high. For all of us, when we speak to our children, we tell them the truth.  And we tell them that Publix has not signed onto the Program because they are afraid.  Even children can see that.  But what does Publix say to its children?  Only lies?  Is that how they are educating their children?  That is not how we prepare our children for the future.”

Others, like Nely Rodriguez, mother of four, agreed. Now is the time!

Thanks to the work of women like Marissa Alexander, Lupe Gonzalo, Nely Rodriguez, maybe Mother’s Day didn’t end early this year, because, for them, the struggle of women continues, and that’s what Mother’s Day is all about.

 

(Photo Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women: Women are the etc.

In Annapolis today, the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee is scheduled to conduct hearings on HB27, the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. Delegates Mary L. Washington, Ariana B. Kelly, and Barbara A. Robinson sponsored the bill. Its synopsis reads: “Prohibiting the use of a physical restraint on an inmate while the inmate is in labor or during delivery; requiring the medical professional responsible for the care of a specified inmate to determine when the inmate’s health allows the inmate to be returned to a correctional facility after giving birth; prohibiting, with specified exceptions, a physical restraint from being used on a specified inmate; requiring a correctional facility to document specified use of a physical restraint; etc.”

Etc. Women are the etc.

Across the United States, women are being imprisoned at a high rate, higher than any other group, according to some reports. From 1977 to 2004, Maryland `enjoyed’ a 353 percent increase in women going to prison. Maryland has one women’s prison, in Jessup. In Jessup, the women prison population breaks down as follows: 53 percent are Black women; 46 percent are White women. (Almost ¾ of Maryland’s prison population is Black, while only 30% of Maryland’s population is Black.)

Most of the women are in for drug-related offenses. Many are in for longer terms, `thanks’ to Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing policies.

Mary Washington introduced a similar bill last year, which was so watered down in committee that it was gutted of any serious content. Hopefully this year’s bill will fare better. Washington has been working with the ACLU of Maryland; Power Inside, a Baltimore group that “serves women impacted by incarceration, street life and abuse”; law faculty from the University of Maryland Law School; students from the University of Maryland – Baltimore County; members of Women In and Beyond the Global; and others.

According to Washington, “One of challenges that these women face is that they are permanently scarred, emotionally and in some ways physically, from being restrained during pregnancy and during birth.”

Maryland is one of a number of states in which legislators are trying to ban the shackling of pregnant women prisoners. In each state, part of the struggle is that women are the etc. Opponents suggest security and flight risks; they share anecdotes of prisoners who have escaped while in hospital. Those anecdotes never involve women, much less pregnant women, much less women in labor or childbirth. Last year, when those anecdotes were presented to the Judiciary Committee, no one mentioned that salient issue.

Women are the etc.: women of color, working women, women prisoners, women. The Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women involves all women, any woman, every woman.

 

(Photo Credit: DaretobePowerful.com)

Michigan: Demand clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates!

In Maryland, incarcerated women are struggling for the right to safe and humane birthing conditions.  Currently, Maryland practices the shackling of pregnant inmates before, during, and after labor and the delivery of their babies.

But this isn’t the only state where that proverbial glow radiating from expectant mothers is dulled by the heavy chains habitually used to restrain them.  In fact, only 18 states have legislation limiting the use of shackles on pregnant women.  Michigan is one of those states.

Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti is the only women’s prison in Michigan.  According to the operating procedures at HVCF, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed during transport to the hospital, even if they are in active labor. At the hospital, the prisoner’s handcuffs are removed and no other form of restraint may be used during labor and delivery, with exceptions through authorization.  However, there is no state legislation mandating this practice.  Furthermore, not all incarcerated women are housed at Huron Valley; many serve their sentences in local jails throughout the state.  What are the operational procedures, if any, that protect pregnant and postpartum women there?  And how is HVCF held accountable to make sure they comply with operating procedures?

There are three main reasons why we should be concerned about the shackling of pregnant inmates: 1.) cruelty, trauma, and humiliation associated with shackling, 2.) the significant health risks they pose to pregnant women, and 3.) constitutionality. According to the ACLU, every single court that has consider the practice of shackling women during labor has found it to be unconstitutional.

On Tuesday January 28th, Maryland lawmakers will gather in Annapolis to decide on the fate of HB27, the “Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act.”  Michigan should follow Maryland’s lead by demanding clear standards that protect the rights and health of pregnant inmates.

 

(Photo Credit: Michigan Department of Corrections)