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.