In New Jersey, Incarcerated Pregnant Women’s Lives Don’t Matter

In New Jersey, a liberal government is grappling with its own sense of cruelty against incarcerated women. A suit filed in the US District Court for New Jersey claims that officers shackled the ankle of a 30-year-old woman identified as Jane Doe to her hospital bed while she was in labor. She was forced to wear the shackles even while she experienced painful contractions, kept her from turning on her side or moving at all to relieve the pain and—when nurses questioned the need for the shackles—officers refused to remove them and remained in the room even while doctors performed invasive medical procedures. She continued to be restrained while recovering from an emergency C-section and was also not allowed to walk the hallways as part of the healing process. 

The use of shackles during childbirth was banned in the state as far back as 2017. Yet, as Jane Doe was sent to jail on a probation violation in 2018 after relapsing, she was shackled during childbirth, and afterwards. 

The process of shackling, not only de-humanizing, takes a mental toll on women. In a 2017 report from the American Psychological Association, “Women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.” Women who are incarcerated tend to already have suffered more childhood traumas and shackling them during childbirth is likely to make conditions such as PTSD worse. 

New Jersey, in the wake of Christie, has worked to make progressive reform to address the growing number of women who are incarcerated, including the issues related to shackling pregnant women while receiving medical care, but these bills fall short on the issues that are created from the process of criminalization to begin with. Jane Doe would not have had to file a lawsuit to allege an illegal shackling had she not been arrested to begin with. She, along with many New Jersey women, are part of a vicious cycle of recidivism where they will constantly be in contact with the criminal justice system. 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prison will be released, but 76.6 percent of them will be rearrested within five years. And in New Jersey, it will cost more to keep these people in prison that it would to give them the help that they need, whether it be financial help, drug rehabilitation, mental health access, etc. (each person in incarceration costs the state $60,000 a year). 

Even the bills proposed by the state, while valiant in their efforts to address the crisis, only do so much as to alleviate the symptoms that are caused by incarceration. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Bergen County, proposed legislation to prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated people during labor and immediately after childbirth, only in cases where the woman (who is in active labor, mind you), presents a substantial flight risk or some other “extraordinary medical or security circumstance dictates that restraints are needed to ensure the safety and security of the prisoner, the employees of the facility or medical facility, other prisoners, or the public”. Again, the extenuating circumstances are loopholes so that women, in active and painful labor, are still restrained during labor. I wonder at what point we’re going to acknowledge that women will not attempt to flee when they can barely stand. 

Other bills have attempted to show that same compassion to incarcerated women, the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system, while reminding those women that they still are prisoners and are only given crumbs at the benevolence of the state at large. 

The Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act, would ensure all incarcerated women in New Jersey receive free feminine hygiene products, expressly ban shackling and eliminate solitary confinement for expectant mothers. The bill would expand visiting hours and free phone calls for incarcerated mothers and would create a pilot program allowing overnight visits for mother who are able to meet certain requirements so that they can bond with their newborns.

While we should applause some compassion for incarcerated women, and incarcerated mothers, we need to keep fighting for a day where we meet a pregnant woman who has relapsed with compassion and public health solutions and not arrest or jail. 

The Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to the surface a longstanding dehumanization of people at the hands of the criminal justice system; those officers didn’t care that Jane Doe was in active labor or recovering from a C-section. To the police, Jane Doe was another inmate that deserved to be handcuffed because she was outside of the prison walls, just like any other officer would do to an “inmate”. 

Defunding the police means defunding the prisons means abolishing the prisons that house these women. $60,000 per incarcerated persons can correspond trauma informed therapists and love and safety. 

Can we reimagine what $60,000 per incarcerated individual in the state of New Jersey (there are 39,000 people in various correctional facilities in the state alone)? Can we think about the various ways we can help those people instead of locking them up and subjecting them to a life of imprisonment and dehumanization? Can we literally comprehend how much help $2,340,000,000 (more than $2 billion!) can buy us? Can we imagine a day where there will be no more Jane Does? Where the lives of incarcerated pregnant women matter? 

(Image Credit 1: The Guardian / Molly Crabapple) (Photo Credit: Facebook / Stop Shackling Pregnant Women) (Image Credit 2: Prison Policy Initiative)

Why do we continue to leave pregnant women in deathtrap jails, prisons, detention centers?

Tammy Jackson

At the beginning of March, we asked if Florida would finally stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth. At the end of June, Florida’s Governor signed the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The new law bans shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement; and requires medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. While this is welcome news, it begs wthe question why it took Florida so long to address the ongoing violence against women in its prisons and jails. Why? Why are pregnant women shackled while pregnant, in childbirth, and after delivery? Why? Across the United States, women, alone in their cells, give birth to children. They are alone because … because they are incarcerated. That justifies all acts of violence and violation, especially against women. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear, the first woman to die of Covid 19 in federal prison, was pregnant when she was sent to prison. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and should never have remained incarcerated. Why is it so hard to release pregnant women from clear and imminent danger?

Every month, the reports come out, and every month, for the past few months, prisons and jails have been the epicenters of Covid infection and mortality. Has that mattered to prison authorities or the public at large? No. Have pregnant women, the most vulnerable sector of the the incarcerated population, been released? No.  In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happenedThe women worry and organize, their families worry and organize, and meanwhile … What? 

This week, faced with a monster outbreak of coronavirus in its prison system, and in particular in San Quentin, California is beginning to consider releasing prisoners. Included in that process is the following: “The department also said it is `reviewing potential release protocols’ for those who are pregnant or in hospice.” Why only now are those processes being reviewed? Why is it so very difficult to understand that pregnant women, and those in hospice care, are at particular risk? What is it about a prison uniform that fatally hides one’s humanity? Meanwhile, part of California’s `process’ of reducing prison overcrowding is to keep people in jails. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Equally nightmarish stories of the abuse of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers continue to pile up as well.

This is the age of mistreatment and abuse of pregnant women. Pregnant women prisoners are the tip not so much of an iceberg as of a continent-wide subterranean volcano. Why are pregnant women being warehoused in jail cells where the staff ignores and `forgets’ them? Why are pregnant women being stuffed into prisons and immigrant detention centers, where they are only meant to suffer and die? If not, we would release them. Period. Meanwhile, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would provide medical care for women before and after childbirth, in both prisons and jails. At the same time, “the legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

South Carolina will stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In March, we asked if South Carolina would pass legislation outlawing the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. Two months and a few days later, we now have the answer. Yes! More than yes, a resounding and expansive yes. While the Governor has yet to sign the legislation, he has said, on more than one occasion, that he would sign it. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the bill, presented by Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican representing Daniel Island, by a vote of 104 – 3, but the bill wasn’t sent over to the Senate in time. This year, the House voted 117 – 0, and Senate voted 42 – 0 to pass the bill. This happened in the midst of the South Carolina focusing on coronavirus related issues. Apparently, no one was more surprised that Nancy Mace, who noted, “This is a really big one. It took a lot of people coming together on both sides of the aisle to make it happen, and I’m just really humbled to see that even during a crisis, in South Carolina, we’re getting things done in a nonpartisan way to make our state better.” 

This is a really big one. Not only did the legislature unanimously endorse the bill, they expanded it. The original bill essentially brought South Carolina into compliance with the federal First Step Act, passed in 2018, which bans the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). Looking at the situation and seizing the moment, legislators, from both parties, decided to add the following: “requiring availability of menstrual hygiene products, access to adequate nutrition, an end to solitary confinement for pregnant prisoners and weekly contact visits between incarcerated people with low- or minimum-security classifications and their children.”

South Carolina’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity noted, “The legislature took the right step in banning shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recuperation, ending an inhumane practice that 42 other states have already opposed. Restoring dignity and treating people with compassion is a common-sense reform to our criminal justice system. We thank the legislature for passing this bill and we urge Governor McMaster to stop this cruel policy.”

In South Carolina, as elsewhere, women, prisoners, supporters invoked dignity. In South Carolina, this week, legislators demonstrated that dignity must include the recognition and abolition of cruelty and then proceed to the respect for all human beings, generally, and, here, for women in their specificity and particularity. Not shackling is a good start, but it remains a negation of a negation. Taking care of pregnant women, no matter where they are, is simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, this week, members of the Michigan Senate began debating a bill, in committee, that would ban the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). The struggle continues.

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula)  (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

Will Florida and South Carolina stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth?

State legislatures in both Florida and South Carolina are considering bills that would outlaw shackling of women prisoners in childbirth. On one hand, it’s about time. On the other hand, which is the same hand, prison is so deeply imbedded into the fabric of the United States that questioning, much less transforming, any aspect of carceral practice requires a radical change in vision. As Angela Davis noted, in 2003, “The prison is considered so natural and so normal that it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.” So natural and so normal have prisons become in the national social landscape and consciousness that it is necessary to debate, at length, whether or not women in childbirth should be shackled. And so we wait attentively for the good news from both Florida and South Carolina.

Although federal law prohibits shackling pregnant prisoners, that law does not cover state and local prisons and jails, not to mention immigrant detention centers. Currently, 23 states allow for shackling women in childbirth. In a recent study of perinatal nurses who had cared for pregnant and postpartum women prisoners, nurses explained that the reason given for shackling women in childbirth was “adherence to rule or protocol.” When the nurses advocated for the shackles to be removed, the number one reason, by far, for denial was “rule or protocol.” In other words, the prison system has rules and protocols that say it’s ok to shackle women in childbirth, and so women prisoners in childbirth must be shackled. Period. 

A different recent study of pregnancy outcomes in U.S. prisons from 2016 to 2017 concludes, “Being in prison or jail during pregnancy can be a difficult time for many women, fraught with uncertainty about the kind of health care they might receive, about whether they will be shackled in labor, and about what will happen to their infants when they are born. Some pregnant women in custody may experience isolation and degradation from staff and insufficient pre-natal care … Data from our study can be used to develop national standards of care for incarcerated pregnant women, advocate for policies and legislation that ensure adequate and safe pregnancy care and childbirth, develop alternatives to incarceration for pregnant women, pro-mote reproductive justice, and encourage broader attention to the reproductive health needs of marginalized women and their families.” As of now, there are no national standards of care for incarcerated women, and there is no requirement to collect data from prisons and jails, much less immigrant detention centers. In a world of intensive and extensive surveillance, prisons and jails constitute a black hole archipelago of opacity. For women, that means a world of pain and suffering.

Florida’s legislature is considering the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The law would ban shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement. It would also require medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. 

South Carolina’s legislature is considering a bill that would ban the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women who are in labor. Additionally, the new law would restrict restraint of pregnant women prisoners to handcuffs only: “A person officially charged with safekeeping of inmates, whether the inmates are awaiting trial or have been sentenced and confined in a state correctional facility, local detention facility, or prison camp or work camp shall not restrain by leg, waist, or ankle restraints an inmate with a clinical diagnosis of pregnancy. Wrist restraints may be used during any internal escort or external transport. The wrist restraints shall only be applied in the front and in a way that the pregnant inmate may be able to protect herself and the fetus in the event of a fall. This provision also applies to inmates not in labor or suspected labor who are escorted out for Ultrasound Addiction Therapy for Pregnant Women or other routine services.” When State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, heard that women in South Carolina are shackled in childbirth, he said, “I think this is a shock that we continue to still shackle pregnant women”.

This is us. We cannot be shocked or surprised at the shackling of women in childbirth. In both Florida and South Carolina, dignity is invoked, specifically dignity for incarcerated women. Think of how far we have fallen that not shackling women in childbirth is considered dignity. I hope that both Florida and South Carolina do pass their respective bills into law, and I hope that we will work for a better understanding of dignity. 

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

Will Ohio stop shackling pregnant women prisoners?

Yesterday, October 9, 2019, Ohio’s Statehouse News Bureau reported, “The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved changes to a bill, SB18, that would ban prison guards from shackling pregnant inmates. The amended legislation would eliminate the practice for an entire pregnancy instead of just the third trimester, which was the original proposal.” The primary sponsors of this bill are Nickie Antonio, Democrat; and Peggy Lehner, Republican. Speaking of shackling pregnant women prisoners, Nickie Antonio noted, “I think it’s harsh. It really comes up against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment when a woman’s pregnant to do that. To move her from place to place … All of the practice and policies in the department of corrections, originated for male prisoners. There was not consideration of women in jail, in prison.” 

Last year, when she was still a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, Nickie Antonio sponsored a similar bill. That bill was co-sponsored by eight Democrats. No Republicans supported the bill, and, after one hearing, it died … or, better, was killed. Elections matter. Thus far, in the Ohio Senate, no one has testified against the proposal. When Nickie Antonio sponsored the new bill in the Senate, she explained that when she first heard of the practice from Maureen Sweeney, a nurse in Ohio, she thought, “It’s barbaric, it’s humiliating for the woman.”

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice in Ohio? “No one tracks how many pregnant inmates are shackled in Ohio so it’s impossible to know how common the practice is. Women who were restrained often don’t want to talk about the experience. But more and more women are entering Ohio’s jails and prisons – an increase driven by drug-related offenses.” No one knows because those in charge don’t care.

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice across the United States? Although the United States is home to 4% of the world’s female population, it houses over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women (this does not include women in immigrant detention centers). Women’s incarceration in the United States is at an all-time high. Incarcerated women are disproportionately located in local jails, and a large proportion are awaiting trial. For pregnant women, this means those who have not been convicted of anything are thrown into facilities where the staffs are untrained and unprepared to make any kind of informed decisions concerning pregnancy or childbirth. The women may be formally innocent until proven guilty, but as pregnant women they have been condemned.

For pregnant women behind bars, the State of Condemnation is a State of Abandonment. As noted by Carolyn Sufrin, the lead author of Pregnancy Outcomes in US Prisons, 2016–2017a groundbreaking study published earlier this year, “There are barely any data, aside from a 2004 survey, on prison pregnancy rates. The only publicly available statistics about prison births are from a 1999 report. And there is no systematic information, not even outdated data, about miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, maternal deaths or other pregnancy outcomes in prison. This is a profound omission. Women who don’t count don’t get counted. And women who don’t get counted don’t count. This lack of statistics shows just how little we care for incarcerated pregnant people.”

How usual is the cruel and humiliating practice of shackling pregnant women across the United States? On one hand, who cares? No one in charge. On the other hand, little by little, more and more states, like Ohio, are moving forward. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACOG, “32 states currently restrict the use of restraints for limited duration, but few states broadly restrict the practice throughout pregnancy and postpartum.” Thirteen states “broadly restrict restraints throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum, including transport to a medical facility”: California, Connecticut, Nebraska, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. That list was published in June 2019. Since then, Georgia passed the Georgia Dignity Act, which bans the shackling of pregnant and postpartum women. Formerly incarcerated women, led by Pamela Winn, a formerly incarcerated woman who had experienced the horror of being shackled in childbirth, pushed and testified, until the legislature’s walls came tumbling down.

Across the United States, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their supporters reject the logic of “women are America’s fast-growing segment of prisoners”, a logic that says that the cruelty and horror visited upon their bodies and selves is merely a consequence of the gendered mathematics of the American decades long experiment in mass incarceration. They say that dignity for women is justice for women; it is time to let dignity and justice roll down like waters, across the land. Prison is bad for pregnant women. Shackling pregnant women, sending pregnant women and post-partum women into solitary are atrocities. Meanwhile, in Ohio, “the bill could get a vote on the Senate floor as early as this month.”

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: Colorlines / Stokely Baksh)

Utah, Georgia and Arkansas stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In 2014, Maryland and Massachusettsstopped shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Last year, at this time, North Carolina ended shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Sometimes, a state legislature decides; sometimes a prisons director. or a governor decides. Advocates for banning the shackling of pregnant women insist that legislation is preferable to executive orders. This year, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina legislatures considered banning shackling pregnant women prisoners and, in some instances, the use of solitary for pregnant and post-partum women prisoners. Utah, Georgia. and Arkansas passed legislation ending shackling. Tennessee failed to pass. Missouri, which already bans the use of shackles on women in childbirth, extended limitations on the practice to jails in Missouri … with “extraordinary circumstances” exceptions. 

In Utah, both houses of the legislature unanimously passed a bill banning the use of shackles in childbirth. Jake Anderegg, a Senate sponsor of the legislation, called the bill “one of the most no-brainer bills I’ve ever run.” In Georgia, both houses passed, although the Senate vote was 52 – 1. The one opponent was “a former law enforcement officer”. In both Utah and Georgia, legislators were moved to action by testimony of formerly incarcerated women who had suffered childbirth while in shackles, Michelle Aldana; in Utah; Pamela Winn, in Georgia.

In 2001, Michelle Aldana was in Utah State Prison for seven months. She was also pregnant. When Michelle Aldana gave birth, she was shackled to her hospital bed for somewhere between 30 and 40 hours. Throughout, her legs and one arm were chained to the bed. Throughout, her ankles bled. As Michelle Aldana remembers, “I felt like a farm animal … I just don’t think any woman, when they’re that vulnerable, should ever be treated that way. It’s just wrong.” Michelle Aldana’s child was born with meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS) and emerged from the womb unconscious: “They hurt my baby….and he didn’t do anything to anybody. I felt like it was my fault because I had a drug charge…but he didn’t do anything – ever – to anybody. He’s just a tiny little baby and they hurt him really bad…and I still feel really bad.” According to Michelle Aldana, because of her body type, she was told a vaginal birth would be dangerous. Utah refused a Caesarean section, and so she had to endure a vaginal birth, during which her pelvis was broken: “I felt like an animal in a cage. I felt like I wasn’t human … Nobody in this world deserves to be treated like an animal.”

In 2008, Pamela Winn. entered Robert A Deyton Detention Facility, a facility in Clayton County, Georgia, that was designed for men. At intake, she discovered she was six weeks pregnant. At that point, Pamela Winn was a healthy single mother of two children, a college graduate, a registered nurse, and a home owner. Whenever Pamela Winn was transported anywhere, she was shackled, wrists to belly chain. At one point, entering a van, she fell and, being shackled, couldn’t catch herself. According to Pamela Winn, “From that point is when I started bleeding.” She asked for medical attention. No one came for days. It took twelve weeks to actually get any medical attention. Then, one night, Pamela Winn started bleeding and cramping. Shackled to her bed, Pamela Winn suffered a miscarriage. Then, she was taken to the hospital, where she was informed that she had already miscarried. When she asked where her baby was, the guards told her they had thrown out the sheets, and with them the baby. Soon after, Pamela Winn was transferred to another facility, where she was immediately placed in solitary. Pamela Winn is now Executive Director of RestoreHer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of incarcerated pregnant women and ending the mass incarceration directly impacted women of color: “I think that’s what’s really driven me to do this work and to fight for these laws to be passed. The fact that they tell you there’s nothing you can do. That just didn’t sit well with my soul to know that someone can treat a person like this.”

We keep reading this sentence: “Women are America’s fast-growing segment of prisoners.” So what? Last week a first of a kind study considering pregnancy outcomes in US prisons was published. That studynotes, “Being in prison or jail during pregnancy can be a difficult time for many women, fraught with uncertainty about the kind of health care they might receive, about whether they will be shackled in labor, and about what will happen to their infants when they are born. Some pregnant women in custody may experience isolation and degradation from staff and insufficient pre-natal care.” The study ends with a call to recognize “the need to address the numerous complexities of birth in custody, such as the medically unsafe practices of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement and shackling women in labor, ensuring proper pregnancy and postpartum care, and determining who will care for the infants born to mothers in custody.” Who doesn’t know that?

Michelle Aldana and Pamela Winn refused to be treated like animals, refused to give up or give in. They have gone on to become inspiring advocates for common moral decency. Who are we when we have to struggle to prohibit forcing women to give birth in shackles? It’s time to stop `discovering’ that women are the fastest growing prison population; that women in prison are pregnant and are giving birth; that prison is bad for pregnant women. Stop shackling pregnant women and stop sending pregnant women and post-partum women into solitary. Stop sending pregnant women to prison. Tear down the prison walls and build a better world. 

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: Colorlines / Stokely Baksh)

In New York, Jane Doe was shackled in childbirth, despite New York’s anti-shackling laws

In March 2018, North Carolina officially ended the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. At that time, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, a medical anthropologist and OB-GYN said, “Passing laws and changing policy is only one step – there needs to be training and accountability and oversight to make sure that it doesn’t actually happen.” In 2009, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during labor and delivery. In 2015, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during in-custody transportation and the eight-week postpartum recovery period. For nine years, “physical restraints” on pregnant women during labor and delivery has been banned. Tell that to Jane Doe, who was forced in February of this year to undergo labor and delivery while her ankles were shackled and her wrists were handcuffed to the bed. Who did this? The New York Police Department. Why? Because they could. Because she was already a Jane Doe, as far as they were concerned.

The attending doctors asked the police to remove the restraints. The police said no. The doctors said New York state law bans the use of restraints. The police replied that the NYPD’s Patrol Guide required restraints and, importantly, the Patrol Guide supersedes state law. According to Dr. Sufrin, 26 states ban the shackling of women in labor. The Federal Government does not ban the shackling of women in labor and delivery, although the so-called First Step Act, currently awaiting discussion in the U.S. Congress, would address the issue. It seems unlikely, though, that the Congress will act on this.

The problem with the so-called banning laws is that they are rife with so-called “extraordinary circumstances” loopholes, which leave a great deal to the discretion of prison staff and police: “While [a number of] states and the District of Columbia have laws governing shackling of pregnant individuals, none have an outright ban on the practice.” 

The history of shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in the United States is the ongoing history of slavery. While we remove statues and rename schools and other institutions, we should pay closer attention to and abolish the shackling of prisoners, all prisoners, beginning at the very least with pregnant women (prisoners). In 2014, the Correctional Association of New York interviewed 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons after the 2009 law was passed. 23 of them had been shackled during childbirth. How many more times must we hear or read similar accounts before we take real action? It’s time to bring slavery to an end. End the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) and all people. Do it now!

North Carolina Stops Shackling Women (Prisoners) in Childbirth!

Yesterday, March 26, 2018, the North Carolina Director of Prisons officially ended the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. This came after SisterSong and other members of the Coalitions to End Shackling in North Carolina sent a letter to the North Carolina Director of Prisons, which read, in part: “The North Carolina Department of Public Safety prohibits the use of shackling during delivery and yet in recent weeks at least two people from North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women were restrained throughout their laboring process at a local medical center. This was in spite of the concerns of medical staff and the fact that it was in violation of NC Department of Public Safety written policies and legal precedent.” After two months `deliberation’, the North Carolina Director of Prisons agreed. In so doing, North Carolina joins 22 states that currently prohibit or limit the shackling of pregnant women. While there is cause for celebration, why do more than half the states in the United States allow women (prisoners) to be shackled during childbirth?

The letter from SisterSong and the coalition noted that shackling people during and after childbirth is “inhumane and unsafe”; that no state that has banned shackling has suffered any negative consequences; that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has long opposed shackling; that “shackling interferes with the ability to properly treat and care for people and to respond to crisis situations”. Along with doctors, the courts have found that shackling violates the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Further, “with people of color overrepresented in the prison system, this issue falls hardest on people who already struggle with health disparities and higher rates of pregnancy complications and maternal mortality.”

The letter concluded, “We are demanding that the policy be updated to be brought in line with the best practices and recommendations of health professionals and that training be provided to ensure that it is implemented consistently. This practice serves no public benefit. It does, however, risk harmful impacts on individuals and their children. It is not only bad health policy, it is a violation of individual’s human rights.”

Last year in North Carolina, 81 women (prisoners) gave birth … shackled. As of a month ago, North Carolina prisons “boasted” 50 pregnant women.

According to Omisade Burney-Scott, director of strategic partnerships and advocacy for SisterSong, explained, SisterSong wants to ban shackling “throughout the entire pregnancy, so during prenatal care, labor and delivery, postnatal, out to eight weeks and also during breast feeding.” In Kentucky, State Senator Julie Raque Adams filed Senate Bill 133, known as the “Dignity Bill,” which would prohibit shackling of women prisoners in childbirth. Currently, the bill is “one floor vote away” from passage. Georgia and Connecticut are considering bills that would ban the shackling of women in childbirth.

Women prisoners are women. It is wrong and harmful to shackle pregnant women. It is right to support women’s right to health, well-being, and being women. So, thank you to SisterSong and their allies. Thank you to State Senator Julie Raque Adams and her allies. Thank you to North Carolina and Kentucky. Last year, Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, “requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider the location of children when placing mothers behind bars, expanding visitation policies for primary caretakers, banning shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women, and prohibiting prisons from charging for essential health care items, such as tampons and pads.” The clock is ticking. End the shackling of pregnant from sea to shining sea.

 

(Image Credit: Radical Doula) (Infographic Credit: Nursing for Women’s Health Journal)

Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day say NO! to being tortured

“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Charles Dickens

Allegheny County Jail, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, routinely throws pregnant women into solitary confinement, for days on end, for minor offenses and less. Five women – Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day – have refused to accept the injustice and  indignity. Yesterday, December 19, their attorneys went to Federal Court to sue the Allegheny County Jail. This is Mersiha Tuzlic’s story, and it’s happening in jails across the country.

On May 27, 2016, Mersiha Tuzlic, was thrown into solitary. On June 18, she wrote a handwritten request to the warden, Orlando Harper, dated 6 -18 -16, which reads:

“Dear Warden,

I’ve been put under Inv. Status on 5-27-16 for allegedly smoking crack! I’m 3 months pregnant and hand no problem giving a urine specimen. It was clean. I don’t understand why I’m still locked up and the other inmate that refused the urine test is free??? I’ve been extremely compliant and haven’t complained – even though I’ve only received 1 hour of rec and 1 shower this Entire time. I feel really grimy and unsanitary. I’m pregnant, restless, neurotic and emotional. The captain who put me in inv status isn’t responding to my inquiries. I don’t know what else to do. I just want to sit in the gym for a while. I’m claustrophobic, and it’s getting to me. If there’s anything you can do at all — anything — please consider helping me! I’m high-risk pregnancy as is, and this is driving me nuts. Thank you for listening.

Ma and baby 🙂 “

The Warden responded to the plea for help: “IF THIS IS A PROBLEM, DON’T COME TO JAIL”

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Petty Dictators, where throwing pregnant women into solitary confinement for no reason at all isn’t enough of an assault on their dignity. When they ask for help, find ways to further diminsh them. Show these women how really powerful you are. The god of small things battles the devil of small men, and in Allegheny County, for too long, the devil has been winning.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Pennsylvania, saw the new system of solitary confinement, and called it out: “Very few … are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.”

Tell the warden of Allegheny County Jail that torturing women is no joke. Write to the Allegheny County Jail here or call them at 412-350-2000. Stop the torture of women in jails.

(Photo Credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

Welcome to Yarl’s Wood, the UK’s special hell for pregnant women

We have been here before … too often: “The Home Office has offered a formal apology and will pay compensation to a pregnant asylum seeker who was unlawfully arrested and detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.” The woman, known as Ms PA, is Congolese. The horror of Ms. PA’s story is that there is no horror in the familiar. Ms. PA was one of 99 pregnant women held in Yarl’s Wood last year. The Home Office has apologized to Ms. PA. The other 98 women must just wait. The horror of Ms. PA’s story is that it is typical.

On February 3, 2014, Ms. PA was arrested, without notice, held for ten hours and then shipped eight hours to Yarl’s Wood. She was four months pregnant at the time. She told the officials she was due for her 20 week scan, and nothing happened. During her month in Yarl’s Wood, she was seen, once, by a midwife, and that was the sum total of her health care.

None of this was hidden. The Guardian interviewed Ms. PA while she was in Yarl’s Wood: “I am very worried about what is happening to my baby. I feel like I am being treated like a criminal here although I have not committed any crime.”

What crime did Ms. PA commit? The crime of being immigrant, African, woman, pregnant, each and all of these combined?

Now the Home Office says what it must. It apologizes. It will investigate. It will … do absolutely nothing.

Worse than nothing, it will continue to imprison pregnant women in open violation of its own policies, and with complete impunity. Last year, Richard Fuller, a Member of Parliament, inquired as to the situation of Ms. PA and three other women. Here’s what happened: “December of last year I had a letter from the Immigration Minster saying that he had asked Serco who were then in charge of Yarl’s Wood to look into these four case and he was assured that an independent health assessment said that there was no problem with their healthcare, that has now been contradicted in court.”

He was assured. Despite reports from the Chief Inspector of Prisons; Medical Justice; Channel 4; and testimony after testimony after testimony after testimony by current and former Yarl’s Wood prisoners, he … was … assured.

Many are now calling for the Home Office to apologize to all the pregnant women it has thrown into Yarl’s Wood. While a good call, that would not begin to arrive at the zero point of justice. Compensation to the women and to their children would also be a good move, and would also leave the nation, and justice itself, in the hole. The threat of Yarl’s Wood remains as long as Yarl’s Wood remains open. The pain of Yarl’s Wood remains as long as Yarl’s Wood remains open. Shut down the whole enterprise and apparatus now. Otherwise, he will always be assured, and she will always suffer harm and injustice. #SetHerFree #ShutYarlsWood Shut it down … now.

(Photo Credit: Socialist Worker / Guy Smallman)