For a comprehensive look at the practice of shackling incarcerated women in labor in the United States, read Anna Clark’s Giving Birth in Chains.
A spirited group of protesters gathered outside New York Gov. David
Paterson’s office in midtown Manhattan today elicited the governor’s
promise to sign legislation that would prohibit the shackling of
incarcerated pregnant women during labor and after delivery.
Though the Federal Bureau of Prisons has restricted the use of
restraints on women in labor, most states do shackle pregnant women
when transporting them for delivery; only California, Illinois,
Vermont, and New Mexico have banned the practice. New York’s bill
enjoys bipartisan support from the legislature; ninety days ago, it
passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in the Assembly.
The Democratic governor has not signed it yet, says Serena Alfieri,
Associate Director of Policy for the Women in Prison Project, in part
because the state’s Department of Corrections "has weighed heavily on
the governor," arguing that the bill was unnecessary. Nonetheless, the
DOC has been "sending mixed messages — claiming both that they don’t
shackle or that they do it safely."
Can you safely shackle a women in labor? "You can’t," argues Alfieri.
Both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and
American Public Health Association have said that the practice is never
safe. Women are shackled with waist chains, and wrists and ankles are
cuffed — including after C-section. Venita Pinckney gave birth in
November 2008, while an inmate at
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She was transported to the
hospital in handcuffs, ankle shackles and waist restraints, and she was
re-cuffed and shackled immediately after delivery. "It was inhumane,"
she says. "Just because I’m in
prison doesn’t mean I have to be treated that way." Erica Knox was
shackled to a bedpost during the delivery of her
placenta. Recent interviews conducted by the Correctional Association
with residents of the Bedford Hills have revealed that, despite the
facility’s insistence otherwise, its officers continue to shackle women
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Gov. Paterson appeared in person after several rounds of protesters’
chants. "We must stop inhumane treatment," he stated, "even if women
commit crimes, even if they are incarcerated." Though he told the
assembled group, "I will sign the bill," Paterson cited a safety
concern regarding a provision of the bill which allows corrections officers to
handcuff one wrist in extraordinary circumstances — when a woman is
not in labor, but is being transported for a scheduled C-section or to
be induced — and is a danger to herself or others. Paterson
argued that such a practice could endanger a woman if, for example, the
vehicle in which she is transported is in a collision. Paterson indicated a willingness to sign the
current bill and to amend that section as needed. "That provision is in the bill to
acknowledge our concern for the safety of corrections officers," said
Tamar Kraft-Stolar, Director of the Women’s Prison Project, "and it’s a discretionary measure, only to be used
in extraordinary circumstances."
"We’re 90 percent there," Kraft-Stolar concluded after the governor’s
appearance. "The measure fully addresses safety issues. It’s long
overdue, and it’s a critical measure to bring our state where
incarcerated women can get a minimum level of dignity in labor and
Tonie Dreher, a recently released woman who witnessed a pregnant woman
spend eight hours shackled in transit from Bedford Hills to Albion
Correctional Facility, observed, "They’re still people, no matter what
crimes they commit."