Guest Post by Lisa Piccinini, student in the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony yesterday on House Bill 27, the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. The hearing garnered an Associated Press article that was published widely. Delegate Mary Washington began the hearing by explaining the general premise of the bill—that restraints should never be used on a pregnant woman or during postpartum recovery. She explained that the bill would also establish reporting requirements and allow for exceptions only through an individualized determination made by the sheriff or managing official of the correctional facility.
Numerous witnesses asked the Committee to issue a favorable report, including members of the medical community, the NAACP, on-the-ground activists, state employee representatives, and the legal community. Several witnesses praised the bill for preventing unnecessary trauma and protecting the humanity of inmates. A representative from the NAACP argued that this bill not only “protects the human dignity of all incarcerated pregnant women and girls,” but also protects the disproportionate number of women of color that are affected by the practice. A witness from the State Medical Society joined others in noting that the bill strikes an appropriate balance between the safety and health of the inmate and child and the safety of the public at large. Still others noted the importance of allowing a woman free movement during the actual delivery process, as well as the inability of a woman to run or flee during labor.
Throughout the hearing, witnesses and members of the Committee made clear their opposition to shackling pregnant women, particularly during labor. Even witnesses requesting amendments were quick to note their overall support of the bill and their willingness to work with Delegate Washington on improving the bill. Some suggested amendments included, for example, allowing medical personnel to request the use of restraints in certain cases and including language protecting medical personnel from liability in the event that a non-restrained inmate causes harm to others or flees. Other questions and concerns focused on why a law is needed to replace the already existing Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services policy, how often shackling actually occurs, and whether the legal standard set by the bill is high enough.
Regarding whether a law is needed, witnesses noted how easily a policy can be changed, and that the bill is substantively different than the policy. For example, the bill puts the onus on management instead of correctional officers to determine when restraints should be used. The Delegate agreed to supply the Committee with more information specifying the differences between the current policy and the proposed bill.
Overall, the bill enjoyed support from Committee members and witnesses alike in today’s hearing.
A recent post by Rachel Roth, national reproductive justice scholar and activist, talks about Maryland’s upcoming legislative efforts to stop the harmful practice of shackling pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery in a Moms Rising piece Maryland 2.0: Activists Gear Up for New Campaign against Shackling.
The predominant reaction I receive when I talk to people about Maryland’s practice of shackling pregnant prisoners is one of surprise and disgust. Many view the practice as barbaric and aged. When I describe what happens to those prisoners who go into labor, who are shackled to their hospital beds and restricted from movement while they give birth, people often ask, “But why are we still doing that?”
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), as in many universities and colleges, there is not much attention given—academic or otherwise—to the violence of the United States prison system. However, after taking a class that examined the oppressiveness of US prisons, my peers and I decided to work with our student organization, Women Involved in Learning and Leadership (WILL), to host a panel that would engage our community in an introductory discussion on the many issues of the prison industrial complex, as well as present avenues of activism for students eager to work for social justice and change.
On November 13th, 2013, my co-leader, Susie Hinz, and I hosted “Inside/Out: Revealing the Prison Industrial Complex” in UMBC’s Skylight Room. Six panelists from diverse backgrounds passed on their knowledge and insight about the prison system, invigorated students to learn more, and taught them how they could help as student activists. Two of the panelists that spoke to students were State Delegate Mary Washington of District 43 in Baltimore City and Jacqueline Robarge, the founder of Power Inside, a grassroots organization in Baltimore that serves women and families and advocates for the end of gender-based violence and oppression.
Del. Washington and Robarge were key figures in the creation of HB0829, a bill that would have prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners. The bill was proposed in the 2013 Maryland state legislative session, but with harmful amendments made to it in the process, it died. However, Del. Washington and Robarge were able to educate the UMBC community gathered at Inside/Out about the issue of shackling. The panelists described the experience of being shackled while going into labor, why the practice needed to be prohibited, and how we, as Maryland residents and student activists can help to affect future legislation that Del. Washington would continue to sponsor. After the event, Robarge and her team from Power Inside were able to collect signatures from the UMBC community in support of future legislation that would end shackling in Maryland.
While Inside/Out was only a stepping stone for the UMBC community to engage with prison activism, it proved to be an excellent venue for reaching out to students, making connections, and garnering more support for the prohibition of shackling pregnant prisoners in Maryland.