Bill to Protect Incarcerated Pregnant Women and Their Babies Passes House

Protecting the Health and Wellness of Babies and Pregnant Women in Custody Act
(Creative Commons)

On Thursday, the Protecting the Health and Wellness of Babies and Pregnant Women in Custody Act passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. The proposed legislation would prohibit the use of shackling during pregnancy and address the maternal care needs of imprisoned women during pregnancy, labor, delivery and post-partum periods.

In July 2020, the bill was introduced by lead sponsors Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus; Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) and Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).  

Clark calls the bill “a necessary step forward as we look to reform our criminal justice system and end abusive practices that are disproportionately levied against Americans of color.”

“The dehumanizing practice of shackling women during childbirth is immoral, grotesque and puts the lives of both the mother and child at unnecessary risk,” said Clark. “With the passage of this bill, we are one step closer to improving the mental and physical health of imprisoned women and their babies.”

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Women in state prisons and county jails, who account for 85 percent of incarcerated women in America, can legally be shackled during birth. Yet, according to a report by the American Psychological Association, restraining women during pregnancy and labor negatively impacts their health and creates complications through labor and recovery.

Additionally, women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish and trauma. 

The Pregnant Women In Custody Act will ban this dangerous practice while implementing the following policies to better document the treatment of pregnant women, institute standards of care, and provide resources to accurately address health care needs.

This includes: 

  • Data collection on pregnant inmates: Requires the Department of Justice to collect data on women’s mental and physical health in federal, state, tribal, and local corrections, focusing on pregnancy and the post-partum period.
  • Addressing the pregnancy and childbirth-related needs of incarcerated women, including: prohibiting restraints and restrictive housing on federal prisoners who are pregnant or who have given birth within the last eight weeks;
  • establishing minimum standards for healthcare for pregnant women, fetuses and newborns in federal custody, and require the DOJ to develop training programs and guidelines for federal correctional officers and U.S. marshals, in consult with health care professionals; and
  • requiring reporting on the use of restraints and restrictive housing on an inmate while she is pregnant, in labor, or recovering from childbirth to the agency director. Each year, a summary of these reports must be submitted by the agency director to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.
  • Training and technical assistance: Directs the DOJ, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to fund training and technical assistance to state and local corrections and law enforcement agencies, to ensure that restraints and restrictive housing are used in accordance with state laws.
  • State incentives to prohibit unnecessary restraints and provide services and programs for pregnant and postpartum inmates, including:
  • providing competitive grant funding for states that have a law addressing the treatment of incarcerated women that the Attorney General (AG) determines meets or exceeds federal standards established in this legislation; and
  • providing a preference in grant funding to states that have enacted or implemented services or pilot programs to address the needs of incarcerated pregnant women.

“The passage of the Pregnant Women in Custody Act is another bipartisan win for criminal justice reform,” said president and executive director of Justice Action Network, Holly Harris. “Especially during a pandemic that has made our prisons and jails the most dangerous spots in the U.S., it is critical that pregnant women receive the proper treatment, health care, and services they need to protect themselves and their newborns.”

The legislation now heads to the Senate for consideration. 

View full bill text here.

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