A bill that bans most instances of shackling inmates during childbirth has finally been signed by NY Governor David Paterson. Shackling during childbirth — which can mean being handcuffed to the bed at the wrists, shackled to the bed at the ankles, and/or even being restrained around the stomach — is a much more routine procedure for inmates giving birth than most people would imagine. And in addition to the inhumane and degrading nature of the treatment, the emotional trauma it inflicts, and the physical discomfort, it’s a practice that can even cause physical injury.
Though there was a federal ban on shackling enacted in 2008, a) it’s impossible to know whether it’s always followed, since inmates rarely file complaints until after being released, b) it doesn’t apply to state-run incarceration facilities, and c) as very few laws seem to, it also doesn’t apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In fact, ICE is one of the biggest offenders, and particularly disturbingly so as a disproportionate number of the pregnant women in ICE detention are pregnant as the result of rape (committed when they were crossing the border), inflicting a unique and especially horrific type of trauma. Indeed, as women of color are disproportionately incarcerated compared to white women, thanks to a racist prison system, this is also an issue that undoubtedly disproportionately affects women of color overall.
The reason, of course, that shackling has been able to continue for so long is the same reason that so many other prisoner abuses take place: racism, classism, mixed ignorance and apathy, and a general attitude that anyone who breaks the law (any law!) is disposable and deserves whatever abuse the government sees fit to heap upon them. It’s majorly disappointing that this new law includes exceptions that may easily be abused, but this is definitely a right step forward. In fact, the saddest thing of all is that according to Mother Jones, New York is only the sixth U.S. state to have legally prohibited the practice at all.
For more on the practice of shackling during childbirth and why it’s a hugely important reproductive justice issue, check out this article from RH Reality Check.
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