Unshackling female prisoners in labor

New York becomes the fourth state to ban an inhumane practice

By Abigail Kramer
Published May 28, 2009 8:27PM (EDT)

In case you missed it, here's some news that deserves praise: Last week, the New York legislature passed a bill (pdf) that prohibits the state’s prisons from using handcuffs or shackles on female inmates who are about to give birth.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, called the practice of restraining women in labor "barbaric and unconscionable" (which sounds about right to me), but the new law will make New York one of just  four states in the country that restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated women during pregnancy or childbirth. California and Illinois were the first to put any legal limits on the practice -- in both cases, after a series of lawsuits forced the states to overhaul their disastrously inadequate prison healthcare systems. Before the restriction, in Illinois, it was standard practice to chain female inmates to their hospital beds before, during and after the births of their babies. As one advocate told the New York Times, “What was common was one wrist and one ankle.” (A policy that, frighteningly enough, looks positively benevolent compared to Kansas’s, North Carolina’s and Washington’s, which allow women to be locked in belly chains and leg irons while they’re in labor, according to a 2006 investigation by Amnesty International.)

Handcuffs and shackles for women in labor pose problems beyond the obvious snafu of being brutal, inhumane and bat’s balls freaking crazy. Having a baby is generally understood to be a wee bit uncomfortable. Not being able to move can increase the pain and slow down or complicate labor. And restraints can cause a delay if a woman has to be rushed off for an emergency C-section -- which, as a doctor points out in Amnesty’s original report on institutional violence against women prisoners, can lead to brain damage for the baby.

That report, and the regular updates that have been posted since, are full of savage childbirth stories told by women who (like more than 70 percent of all women arrested in the U.S.) were originally convicted of nonviolent crimes. Maria Jones was serving time in a county jail for a drug law violation when her labor was induced. She was “kept in shackles, leaving 18 inches between her ankles, and told to pace the hallway for several hours. ‘It was so humiliating. My ankles were raw,’ she said. ‘I had shackles on up until the baby was coming out and then they took them off for me to push…It was unbelievable. Like I was going to go anywhere.’”

And in fact, women giving birth have not turned out to pose a tremendous flight risk to the nation's criminal jsutice system: When Amnesty International asked prison administrators to provide examples of past in-labor escape attempts, they came up with exactly... well, zero.

Abigail Kramer

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