NY Bans Most Shackling During Childbirth

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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11 comments for “NY Bans Most Shackling During Childbirth

  1. August 29, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Everything about ICE is a horror story in itself. Ugh. And people want to entrust them with more power and jurisdiction.

  2. Asenath Waite
    August 29, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Of course we all have to be protected from those terrorist women who are going to run away in the middle of labor and kill some innocent Americans before they’re done giving birth.

    It’s mind-blowingly horrifying that this happens at all, never mind that people defend it and oppose legislation against it.

  3. August 29, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I’ve never had a baby, but I imagine the process of childbirth pretty much keeps you in one place for a while without any shackles involved.

  4. oldlady
    August 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    It may be difficult to believe, but forty years ago some hospitals were still binding women’s arms in childbirth, inmates or not! It was, apparently, common procedure in earlier times. God knows, the woman shouldn’t interfere with the doctors during her own childbirth!

    And while we’re on the topic, what position, other (as Adrienne Rich once pointed out) than standing on one’s head, could be more absurd for childbirth than lying flat on one’s back?

  5. Nia
    August 29, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    I thought your constitution said something about cruel and unusual punishment.

  6. Jackmojo
    August 29, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Not to rock the boat or anything, but I would think there are probably a few instances where this might be warranted from a prison safety standpoint (dangerous offenders with a track record of attacks on prison personnel being the obvious example), so I would hope the law has some options in it for the safety of the medical staff involved, i.e. can they still use normal medical restrains (I’m thinking the padded leather ones) if safety is a valid concern?

  7. Azalea
    August 30, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I don’t know why but this made me immediately wonder if these women are even given the option for 1) an abortion and 2) pain management medication.

    How about not having any potential weapons within her reach and as with women who are NOT incarcerated, having someone there the whole time. People have prison guards even when they are dying in ER the same could be done for labor. If they did their jobs and was there for the unlikely event that someone in labor is going to attack anyone then the shackles become a perfectly moot and unjust point.

  8. August 30, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I was going to talk about this some when I guest blog but we had a pretty famous incidence of this in Nashville a few years ago. Juana Villegas was arrested in what was pretty clearly an incidence of driving while brown (brown people are arrested for things other folks only get tickets for in order to put them under 287(g) scrutiny).

    She was just in jail. Not that it’s right to do this to women who are in prison, but they do this to women who haven’t even been convicted of anything. In this instance, the nurses were crying and begging the officer with her to unlock her so that she could be made more comfortable.

    What’s really interesting to me, and I don’t quite know what to make of it, except to mention it, is that this is one unintended consequence of 287(g). It puts people who otherwise have no criminal history in the legal system in great numbers. So, you have a woman, like Villegas, who has made a nice, solid working class life for herself, who hasn’t been in trouble regularly with the law, and when this happened to her, she raised hell about it.

    And thank god, because I don’t think many people in Nashville knew that pregnant jailed women were shackled during childbirth if they went into labor while in our jail and I’m not sure that a woman who was in and out of jail regularly would have a.) been believed or b.) even thought that there was something over-the-line wrong with this, since so much of how we incarcerate people is humiliating and torturous.

    I wonder if this is one of the reasons for the constant insistence on equating illegal immigrants with criminals, because otherwise, they are believable first-hand witnesses to how fucked we treat people we’ve decided are the criminal class.

    Oldlady, yep. And that’s because “twilight sleep” was not an anesthetic; it just caused you to not remember the pain. And they wrapped women’s hands and heads in lamb’s wool, too, so that their husbands wouldn’t see chafing and bruises.

  9. September 28, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I have never heard of this before and I am appalled. I mean, being shackled not only would be uncomfortable if not downright painful during labor and delivery, it could also complicate the delivery possibly causing the mother and child to die. Yes, criminals should be punished, but not to the point of possibly causing the death of an inmate and her child!!! This is truly cruel and unusual punishment. During childbirth, I doubt any woman could escape or injure anybody. And, aren’t officers there to make sure they don’t escape or injure anybody? Aren’t they in a locked room? I can’t believe doctors would put up with this. Only in very unusual situations should this be allowed and even then, surely something better could be though of to restrain a laboring woman if need be. Good grief! And I do wonder if pain-killing medications are administered if needed? I hope so. This is so inhumane. It is degrading to the birth process and to the baby if nothing else. I can’t imagine giving birth without some freedom of movement, but when I gave birth, my legs were shackled in these stirrups that held my legs up and apart. When I gave birth in England, though, it was just in a hospital bed where I could move freely and do what I wanted. Sometimes our country can be so barbaric in little instances like childbirth. I hope every state passes the anti-shackling of laboring/birthing/nursing mothers. Other forms of restraint (like female officers — plural if necessary — being present) could be used instead, surely?

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