Massachusetts May Unlock the Shackles

No one believed Kenzie was in labor. As an inmate at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional facility, she was told to wait while her contractions grew more severe.

“They just kept denying me, saying I wasn’t really that far into labor because I was not hysterically screaming,” Kenzie told radio station WBUR in a recent interview. “It wasn’t until I had said that I had the urge to push that they decided to take me seriously.”

Kenzie was transported to a nearby hospital with shackles on her ankles and cuffs on her wrists. The restraints remained until she could persuade a correctional officer to remove them, just minutes before the birth of her son. After the delivery, she was handcuffed to the hospital bed.

Stories like Kenzie’s are a reality for thousands of incarcerated pregnant women across the U.S. Each year, about 12,000 women—6 percent of all women prisoners—are pregnant at the time of their incarceration, according to data from the Department of Justice. However, only 18 states have laws banning the use of restraints on pregnant inmates.

Now, Massachusetts is poised to become the 19th state to outlaw the barbaric practice.

For more than a decade, versions of the anti-shackling bill have been introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature. Last month, the latest version of the bill finally made some progress when it advanced to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, where it is currently under debate. In the meantime, Gov. Deval Patrick issued temporary emergency regulations prohibiting the use of restraints on incarcerated pregnant women for the next 90 days.

“As hard as this is to believe, it is not unusual for pregnant women in Massachusetts jails to be handcuffed to the hospital bed even while in labor,” Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said in a statement. “It is inhumane and puts the woman’s and the fetus’s health at risk.”

If passed, the bill will not only ban shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth, but also shackling them while traveling to and from medical centers after the first trimester of pregnancy.

But it’s not just restraints that harm incarcerated pregnant women in Massachusetts. According to Amundson, the state has a “patchwork of policies” protecting the health of incarcerated women. While some prisons and jails offer a full spectrum of medical services to its pregnant inmates, others provide women prisoners with little to no prenatal or postpartum exams, classes or resources. The anti-shackling bill will help correct these discrepancies by mandating weekly prenatal classes and exams, as well as postpartum evaluation, including screenings for depression.

Shackling incarcerated pregnant woman has a long, hidden history in the U.S. Historians believe the practice began in the 1970s, as correctional facilities started to implement more gender-neutral policies. As the number of incarcerated women has increased more than 600 percent since 1980, atrocious stories began to surface—not just of shackling pregnant women, but also of their total neglect. According to recent media reports, it’s not uncommon for incarcerated pregnant women to have virtually no access to medical care or to give birth alone in their cells.

Even states that already prohibit shackling have been hit by legal challenges. For instance, 80 inmates of the Cook County Jail in Illinois filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012, claiming they were restrained while in labor. Yet the state had been the first in the nation to ban the practice, more than a decade earlier.

It’s tough to pinpoint the motive behind shackling pregnant inmates. Supporters of the practice contend that the women pose a security risk, even though a majority of incarcerated women are serving time for non-violent offenses. Members of the medical community are opposed to shackling, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stating that shackling women during labor is “demeaning and rarely necessary,” and can interfere with a physician’s ability to care for her patient.

Although 32 states still don’t have protections for their pregnant inmates, banning the inhumane practice is gaining support at the national level. The Bureau of Prisons revised its policy in 2008, prohibiting shackling before, during and after labor at all federal prisons. Just last January, President Obama signed a spending bill that included a provision banning the use of restraints on pregnant women in immigration detention facilities.

For women like Kenzie, these laws will ensure that women like her are protected and treated with dignity.

“You know, no woman should ever have to go through [labor in shackles],” she told WBUR. “If you ever delivered and had a child, you would understand.”

Photo from Flickr user stevendepolo under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Lauren Barbato is a writer who enjoys focusing on the intersection of the arts and social justice. As a journalist, she has contributed to Ms., the Women's Media Center, IndieWire, MovieMaker Magazine and many others. She holds a B.F.A. degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_barbato.