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)

What do you mean, sterilized without consent?

Last week, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill reads, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seems pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer.

And yet, this law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history.

The quick story is that the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, last year, that the California prison system had coerced women prisoners into sterilization. Lawmakers, and in particular the California Women’s Legislative Caucus, called for an investigation. A State audit showed that between 2005 and 2013, 144 tubal ligations were performed on women prisoners. At least 25% of these had no evidence whatsoever of informed consent. Most of the others were dicey. 88 of the women were Latina or Black, and 6 were “other”. All of the women, one hundred percent, had been jailed at least once.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson wrote the bill. She worked with Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the prisoners rights group Justice Now. They worked with former prisoners, such as Kelli Dillon, who could confirm the allegations and, more importantly, put a human face on the story. When the bill was presented, it passed unanimously, thanks to the great work of great investigative reporters, community organizers, legislators, and current and former women prisoners.

The law’s back-story raises many concerns. Between 1909 and 1964, California had compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people of color, the poor, the disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and prisoners. About 20,000 men and women were sterilized without any pretense of consent. Forced sterilization laws were officially banned, by the California legislature, in 1979.

Prison doctors and administrators found loopholes in the ban, and they were back in business, and the only possible witnesses are `unreliable’. After all, they’re repeat offenders, many with low levels of formal education and many with “too many children.” And they’re women, mostly women of color.

In Maryland, when State Delegate Mary L. Washington discovered that women prisoners were being shackled in childbirth, she replied, “Wait. What do you mean, shackled?” When she learned that shackled meant shackled, she launched what she figured was a no-brainer, a ban on shackling women prisoners in childbirth. It took two years of lots of brain and brawn to get that no-brainer passed.

These crimes by the State succeed because the population at large has been persuaded, for decades, that these women are the problem, and it’s best to leave the problem to the experts, prison doctors and prison guards. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world of what-do-you-mean.

In California, members of Justice Now are organizing an education campaign for current women prisoners and another for former prisoners. We all need that education. What do you mean, sterilized without consent? What do you mean, shackled?

 

(Photo credit: CDCR via Common Dreams)

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)