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Anti-Shackling Laws Gain Momentum

March 28, 2010

On March 23, 2010, Washington became the seventh state to prohibit the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during labor and delivery.

Washington’s law is similar to statutes already passed in Illinois, California, Vermont, New Mexico, Texas, and New York.  Pennsylvania may soon join the list, as their State Senate recently passed an anti-shackling bill as well.

Across the nation, prisons, jails, and other penal institutions have routinely shackled pregnant women across the stomach and at the ankles and wrists during transport, labor, and even childbirth.  Women who have experienced these restraints recall the practice as humiliating and even potentially dangerous.  “I felt like an animal who was giving birth in front of her masters,” said one former inmate who provided testimony in Washington.

A number of professional groups have condemned the practice of shackling pregnant women, including Amnesty International and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).  The judicial system has also weighed in:  the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 2009 case, Nelson v. Norris, that shackling a woman in late-stage labor, in the absence of a security need, constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Advocacy groups in Rhode Island have been working hard to raise awareness about this issue.  The RI affiliate of the ACLU and RI NOW jointly filed an open records lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (“D.O.C.”) at the beginning of February.  They are contesting the agency’s refusal to release the entirety of its policies relating to the use of restraints on women prisoners when they are in labor, delivering a baby or in post-delivery recuperation.

In the meantime, legislation called the Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act has been introduced in both the Rhode Island House and Senate this session.  The bills establish standards for the treatment of pregnant prisoners; among other things, the proposed law would ban restraints during the transportation of a woman to a medical facility and during labor, delivery, or postpartum recovery.  An exception is carved out to allow the least restrictive restraint if an inmate is deemed to be a serious risk of physical harm to herself or others or is a flight risk.  However, the legislation would ban the use of leg or waist restraints while a woman is in labor or delivery in all circumstances.

If you are concerned about this issue, contact the members of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee and/or the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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