Prisoners' Rights Advocates Say Pregnant Inmates Still Being Shackled During Labor

group of prisoners' rights organizations is pushing for increased enforcement of a new state law prohibiting the shackling of pregnant inmates while in labor.

Prisoners' Legal Services and the Prison Birth Project were both major advocates of the law signed by former governor Deval Patrick in 2014 that prohibits the restraint of a prisoner in labor and requires a pregnant inmate to be transported in a van with seat belts with handcuffs only in front.

But representatives of those groups say not all jails are complying with the law.

"The law is not living up to its promise because it is being violated in policy and practice," said Rachel Roth, an independent consultant for the prisoners' rights groups, in prepared testimony given to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

The prisoners' rights advocates say women have been shackled while in labor or immediately after giving birth. Inmates have missed court dates or doctor's appointments because prison officials say they do not have vans with seat belts available, and women have been transported in vans without seat belts. All of the state's counties have not adopted sufficient policies to conform with the law.

The advocates say the Department of Corrections has failed to comply because it has not developed statewide health standards for pregnant incarcerated women.

The groups say pregnant inmates have been given clothing that is too small or too large, and have not been given a healthy enough diet.

Lauren Petit, staff attorney for Prisoners' Legal Services, which has been monitoring compliance with the new law, said while some prisons have been responsive to her organization's concerns about compliance, many prisons and jails are continuing to violate the law, "subverting the Legislature's intent in passing the law and subjecting pregnant women to illegal, unsafe and degrading treatment."

For example, women can be shackled, under some interpretations of the law, after a postpartum recovery period of just one to three days.

Marianne Bullock, director of a program of the Prison Birth Project that provides doulas to prisoners, relayed testimony from a woman who said she was chained to a hospital bed while in labor until a nurse confirmed that she was in "active labor" rather than having sporadic contractions. Another woman said she was given meals of cheese on white bread with milk while pregnant, but no fruits or vegetables.

A bill, H.3679, sponsored by Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, chairman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, with 27 co-sponsors, would prohibit the shackling of women for six weeks after they give birth in order to give them time to recover; would give emergency medical personnel, who are likely to be the ones transporting women to the hospital, the authority to determine that a woman is in labor so she cannot be shackled; would require training on the law for jail employees who transport or supervise women; and would require corrections officials to report any instance where they restrain a pregnant or postpartum inmate due to extraordinary circumstances.

"I'm confident this bill will provide greater clarity to ensure uniform health and safety practices for pregnant and postpartum women who are incarcerated in Massachusetts," Khan said.