Locked Up, Pregnant, and Shackled: Governor Schwarzenegger Can Unchain Them

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Locked Up, Pregnant, and Shackled: Governor Schwarzenegger Can Unchain Them

LeaJay Harper

In California’s prisons, pregnant Black women, brown women, and Asian-Pacific Islander women are chained together in a barbaric throwback to another time. But it’s here and now.

Long before Bristol Palin and Teen Mom reality shows made the headlines, I was a teen mother.  Now I am lucky enough to be gainfully employed, contributing to my community, and raising two great kids. My day job gives me the chance to work with women and girls who aren’t having it so easy—many of them are in our jails and prisons.

I have worked with several young women who found out they were pregnant while they were in lock-up, and others who knew when they were arrested. Some were already moms; for others, this was a first pregnancy.

It’s hard to imagine or explain the mix of emotion many of them have felt, from hope to rage to fear and back again.  Plus a new challenge: how to stay healthy while locked up?

As a teen mom I wasn’t busy going to pre-natal yoga and acupuncture, but I was on the outside, getting fresh air and dreaming big dreams. Making goals and plans, and working toward them.  For women inside, being pregnant in lock up gives them a whole set of new things to worry about.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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One of those many things is shackles.  Currently, in California’s jails and prisons, it is common practice to shackle pregnant women.  That means using metal chains on their swollen ankles and bellies, holding their wrists in chains behind their backs, and chaining prisoners to each other.  Under current law, the chains have to be removed during labor and delivery, but that means they may still be on when women are being transported to and from court, doctor’s visits, and even to the hospital to give birth.

These young women have many real worries, from how they are eating and sleeping, to the care of their kids and other family members on the outside, to taking the next step toward their release. California would be wise to make their burden lighter, not heavier, since we are often reminded that being healthy and safe during pregnancy is good for mothers and babies alike.  And good outcomes for these moms and their kids is good for our state in every way: economically, socially, and morally.

Being shackled while pregnant is cruel and unusual punishment. When pregnant women are forced to walk with their arms held behind their backs, they risk falling and injuring themselves or their babies.  When women in early labor are shackled to the bed, they may have trouble receiving adequate monitoring.  The shackles may interfere with needed interventions, which can be life or death.

Fifty-four percent of the women and girls who are incarcerated in California’s prisons are people of color.  Black women, brown women, Asian-Pacific Islander women who are locked up and chained together with swollen ankles and big bellies—it seems barbaric and like it must be happening in some other time and place; but it’s not. It’s here and now.

That’s why the Center for Young Women’s Development, along with our allies and friends, are supporting AB1900—a bill authored by Assembly-member Skinner–that would go a long way toward ensuring that this practice stops dead in its tracks.  Already passed by the California State Assembly and the State Senate, the bill prevents pregnant women from being shackled, and ensures that they will be held and transported in the least restrictive restraints possible. Advocates like me are in support, as is the California Medical Association.  The American College of Gynecologists is even a co-sponsor of the bill. The last step is for the Governor to sign this bill into law.

I am hoping that he signs.  My job, both as a young mother and as an advocate, is already challenging enough. Let’s remove this unnecessary obstacle and get on with the real work ahead.

Topics and Tags:

California, Pregnancy, Shackling