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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.