Anti-Shackling Bill Now On Governor Deval Patrick's Desk

“I was handcuffed by both my wrist and my ankle to the hospital stretcher for over eighteen hours while I was in labor,” said Michelle Collette, who was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham.

The Massachusetts Senate and House Monday enacted a bill to prohibit shackling and promote safe pregnancies for female inmates in Massachusetts jails said Sen. Karen Spilka, who represents Framingham.

The bill, sponsored by Spilka and Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), prohibits the shackling of women during pregnancy, labor and delivery in Massachusetts state and county correctional facilities, unless they present a specific safety or flight risk.

“I was handcuffed by both my wrist and my ankle to the hospital stretcher for over eighteen hours while I was in labor,” said Michelle Collette, who was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham said Monday. “Today, the legislature moved us one step closer to making sure that no woman in Massachusetts will ever again experience what I went through when giving birth to my son.”

Eighteen other states in the country prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates during the 2nd and 3rd trimester and post-partum because of its negative impact on reproductive health. 

Physical restraints can inhibit a physician’s ability to safely treat and assess the mother by reducing access to the patient and interfering with evaluation of the physical condition of the mother and the fetus. 

Shackling can make the labor and delivery process more difficult, putting the health and lives of these women and unborn children at risk. 

Although current law lays out the procedure for transferring pregnant inmates, it does not address the procedures used during labor, delivery, or recovery, and is silent on the issue of shackling.

Rep. Khan filed some version of the Anti-Shackling Bill since 2001. In 2013, Sen. Spilka, who represents Framingham, filed a companion bill in the Senate. 

Senator Spilka and colleagues in the Senate and the House have been advocating for anti-shackling legislation for several years with support from the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition, made up of women’s groups, human rights organizations, medical practitioners, faith leaders and formerly incarcerated women. 

In March, Governor Deval Patrick filed 90-day emergency regulations to immediately prohibit the practice of shackling pregnant women as a stopgap measure until the legislature passed the Anti-Shackling Bill. 

“All women deserve a safe, healthy pregnancy and birth experience,” said Senator Spilka. “It is shocking and outrageous that shackling is something that still happens, and with this bill we are making a clear, strong statement of policy that we do not allow the shackling of pregnant women in Massachusetts. It is unsafe, inhumane and completely unnecessary.”

“We are grateful for the leadership in the legislature and the swift passage of this bill before the 90-day emergency regulations expire next week,” said Megan Amundson, Executive Director at NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts in a press release. “Despite the 90-day emergency regulations, the barbaric practice of shackling women in labor has continued in Massachusetts. That is why it is so important that this bill be signed into law.”

Since the emergency regulations were filed in February, advocates have heard reports of two incarcerated women who have gone into labor. 

Both were shackled during transport, and one was not unshackled when requested by medical personnel. Further, one was shackled in the hospital during labor and during postpartum recuperation without an individualized determination that “extraordinary circumstances” justified it.

Marianne Bullock, founder of the Prison Birth Project, works with pregnant and postpartum women in a jail in Western Massachusetts. 

“Even still, my clients are brought to the hospital in handcuffs, in the back of a police car, with hard metal seats and no seat belt – often in active labor. They undergo vaginal exams in labor with a leg or wrist shackled to the bed only to be unrestrained when they are cleared by medical staff to go to the delivery room. This law will give officers clear-cut rules to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”

Additionally, the bill outlines basic standards of prenatal and postpartum care to ensure safe, healthy outcomes for female prisoners and their newborns, including standards for the treatment and medical care of pregnant inmates, nutrition, prenatal and postnatal care and counseling services. Above all, this bill promotes inmate safety and good reproductive health for women returning to their communities by creating a uniform, statewide anti-shackling policy.

Lauren Petit, staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services, added, “This law is critical because it brings uniformity to the system. Women have different experiences, depending on whether they’re being held at MCI Framingham, Bristol County Jail, or the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center.” 

“I spoke with an 18 year old woman who received no birthing classes at all.  She had no knowledge of what she was going to experience in childbirth or what she needed to do. She reported being transported in DOC transportation vans, handcuffed and shackled and without seatbelts," said Petit.

The Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition is made up of formerly incarcerated women, medical groups, legal and human rights organizations, women’s groups, and faith leaders. A growing number of statewide health care organizations are also speaking out against the use of restraints on pregnant women and in favor of new medical care standards for pregnant women. 

“The Anti-Shackling Bill would reduce the risks and associated costs for pregnant women in our jails and prison by requiring basic medical standards like prenatal and postpartum care, access to health-related information, counseling and dietary needs,” said Health Care For All Executive Director Amy Whitcomb Slemmer in a press release.

"The next step is ensuring that this law is enforced,” said Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Policymakers have stepped up to address this ugly reality. But we need to ensure that we never again hear whispers that this is happening behind closed doors."



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