Guest post by Rachel Roth
I was thrilled to have a front-row seat at the State House in Boston when Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill to change the way that pregnant women in jail and prison are treated.
The room was packed with at least 100 policymakers, legislative staffers, and advocates who support an end to shackling. After he signed the bill, Governor Patrick said, “It blows my mind that I have to sign a law for that.”
Advocates in Massachusetts have been trying to get this issue on the public’s radar for years. This legislative session, we took a page from the playbook of our friends in Maryland and wrote a petition to raise awareness and demonstrate support for change. After we testified in favor of the bill at a hearing in December, we launched the petition and used action alerts and social media to spread the word.
Although no one spoke out publicly against the bill, as happened in Maryland, we knew that corrections officials were expressing their opposition behind the scenes. We pressed the argument that shackling pregnant women is unsafe, unnecessary, and inhumane. That argument became even more powerful when women who knew firsthand what it’s like to be shackled during labor got involved and started speaking out for change.
Michelle described being shackled to the hospital bed by her wrist and her ankle during 18 hours of labor. Kenzie described being shackled with handcuffs and ankle restraints as she slid around the backseat of a police car, trying with all her might not to push. She had her baby minutes after arriving at the hospital because the jail staff ignored her when she said she was in labor. Kenzie was shackled to the bed throughout her entire postpartum hospital stay, and both Michelle and Kenzie were shackled on the way back to prison.
What we got in our new statute
The new Massachusetts law, which went into effect immediately, sets strict limits on shackling and also guarantees minimum standards of care for pregnant women in the state prison and in all county jails.
The bill bans the use of any restraints on women during labor and childbirth. There are no exceptions. The bill bans the use of waist chains and leg irons on women who are pregnant or who have given birth. There are no exceptions.
The bill allows the use of handcuffs in front of a woman’s body during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy and during postpartum recovery only if a woman presents an immediate threat of harm to herself or others or a credible risk of escape that cannot be controlled in other ways.
The bill requires the state prison and county jails to provide prenatal and postpartum care, including mental health care, and to have on staff at least one medical professional who is trained in pregnancy care. The bill also requires appropriate nutrition, vitamins, and supplements, at least one hour a day to walk or exercise, and maternity clothes.
What we wish we got
The final version of the bill deleted an important provision on oversight that would have required annual reports documenting incidents of shackling. The reports would have been filed with the Legislature and made available to the public. Some type of oversight is critical to see whether these laws are working. Research in California and Texas found many county jails that never even wrote policies to comply with state statutes against shackling. In Illinois, dozens of women in labor were illegally shackled the Cook County Jail in Chicago, despite a state law on the books for more than a decade.
And on the very day that we celebrated our new law in Massachusetts, the ACLU of Pennsylvania called on the state Attorney General to do something about repeated violations of their 2010 statute against shackling.
Looking to the future
I wish that passing a law were enough to secure women’s right to be free from shackling during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. But experience tells us it is just one step. The coalitions we formed in Massachusetts, Maryland, and other states need to stay active and find ways to monitor the impact of the laws we worked so hard to achieve.
We should also see our campaigns against shackling as part of a larger struggle to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on women’s lives. We can apply our tried-and-true advocacy skills to other issues, like repealing mandatory minimum sentences, shifting public policy to treat drug use as a public health challenge instead of a crime, and reforming the bail system so that most people go home before and during their trial. The more we can do to keep women out of prison and jail in the first place, the less we have to worry about the harm that women will experience inside the walls.About Rachel Roth: Rachel Roth is a writer, consultant, and advocate for reproductive justice, rights, and health. Much of her work focuses on the impact of imprisonment on women’s lives and the need for new drug policies and criminal justice policies. She lives in the Boston area and is the author of the book Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights.