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State bill would stop shackling incarcerated women during childbirth

In hopes of preventing unhealthy childbirths due to incarcerated women being shackled immediately prior to, during and after childbirth, the Joint Committee on Public Safety released a bill Tuesday  banning this practice in Massachusetts.

This anti-shackling bill was originally filed in January 2013. Following the bill’s release it must be passed in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature before being signed by the governor. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka, who said enacting this law is long overdue. It will prohibit the practice of handcuffing incarcerated women to the hospital bed during labor.

“Eighteen other states have this kind of bill, and I’m not aware of a single instance where a woman in the middle of delivery has decided to use that as an opportunity to escape,” Spilka said.

Six percent of incarcerated pregnant women are shackled while giving birth, Spilka said. For that reason, Spilka emphasized that in addition to preventing the handcuffing of pregnant women to their hospital beds, this bill will ensure that the women will get proper nutrition, healthcare services, counseling, prenatal care and addiction services while in jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts  supports the bill, along with many other human rights organizations and women’s rights groups. Gavi Wolfe, the legislative counsel at the ACLU, said he was surprised to find out that Massachusetts had not already passed such a law.

“Though we knew it was happening in other parts of the country, we assumed it couldn’t happen here in Massachusetts,” Wolfe said. “Massachusetts has the reputation of being a forward thinking state, and I think in many respects we are, but sometimes policies and practices take a while to catch up.”

Wolfe described the practice as inhumane and pointed out that simply making state policies would not be enough.

“People’s rights are being violated, it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “We want to make sure that here in Massachusetts there are clear laws on the books, not just policies, because policies don’t have the force of law … It’s a matter of basic decency, it’s not humane to treat them this way.”

Even if some people are apathetic to giving rights to incarcerated people, Wolfe outlined the many ways this affects the fetus.

“It impacts the process of giving birth, it can delay necessary medical care in emergency situations and that can in turn be very serious for the baby,” he said. “In addition, if a woman is immediately shackled after giving birth then she cannot hold her baby close, and that has an impact on the baby’s first moments and its ability to bond and find comfort in its mother’s arms.”

A number of residents, like Andrea Brookes, 32, of South Boston, said they think this is a tough topic because it delves into the controversial subject of whether or not prison inmates deserve certain rights.

“Some people think criminals should no longer have the right to be treated well,” Brookes said. “But at the same time, shackling pregnant women goes beyond that to how it’s going to affect the innocent baby. I might understand it in the most dire situations, but other than that, it should be prohibited.”

One resident said both arguments have valid reasons, but human rights were established for situations such as these.

“I’m pretty apathetic toward these women in general, but if it’s a matter of basic human rights then it’s definitely unconstitutional to handcuff them and that’s all it comes down to legally,” said Aysahar Kaisaier, 20, of Brighton.

Some residents do not see any reason why shackling the women to the hospital bed would even be necessary.

“It seems like a lazy solution,” said Anna Fernandez, 21, of Allston. “I highly doubt the women are going to try to escape during childbirth, it’s a pretty big ordeal … and even so, the prison security and the hospital security should be sufficient in preventing that without handcuffing them.”

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