Written by Amie Newman for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
Cassandra Brawley went into labor two and a half years ago at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women on a Friday the 13th. Though she was experiencing distress – her water broke and she was leaking bloody discharge – and she repeatedly expressed to prison officials that “something was wrong”, still her pleas went largely ignored. After three days of labor pain and obvious suffering, Cassandra was shackled for transport to the hospital where she would eventually undergo an emergency cesarean section.
“The belly chain was wrapped around me until they admitted me into the hospital. And then they shackled my foot to the bed while I was having labor contractions,” Brawley told me.
As a medium security prisoner, convicted of second-degree theft, Brawley was not considered a threat to herself or others. She had never been convicted of a violent crime and was an exemplary prisoner. Still, Brawley was kept chained and shackled to the bed for hours during painful labor contractions and while she was given an epidural.
According to a complaint filed in court by the women’s rights advocacy organization Legal Voice against the Washington State Department of Corrections, on Brawley’s behalf, “A physician attempted to induce labor by breaking the amniotic sac, but found the sac empty.” Brawley was immediately wheeled down to surgery to undergo an emergency c-section – still in ankle chains. It was only at the command of the physician performing the surgery that she was unshackled – and then only until the surgery was complete.
“They shackled my foot to the bed right after the c-section was over. It was awful. And 18 hours after I gave birth to my son, you know how you have to get up and walk around so you don’t get blood clots? The first time I stood up and tried to walk, they shackled my feet together,” said Brawley.
In fact, Brawley was kept shackled to the bed throughout her entire 3 days in the hospital.
Legal Voice claims that the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) violated Ms. Brawley’s constitutional rights when they shackled Brawley during labor, in opposition to its own policy and are bringing her case to court.
Currently, the Washington state DOC policy allows shackling of pregnant women in the third trimester only and not during labor and delivery but Sara Ainsworth, the lawyer spearheading Brawley’s case, is also involved in a legislative effort to ensure a complete prohibition on shackling of pregnant women in Washington state.
“It defies common sense to risk a pregnant woman’s health, safety and dignity by shackling her while she’s in the process of giving birth,” says Ainsworth.
The Senate version of HB 2747 dropped on Monday, January 18th, 2010 and prohibits Washington state correctional facilities of any kind from shackling pregnant incarcerated women or youth except in “extraordinary circumstances, where a corrections officer makes an individualized determination that restraints are necessary” to prevent escape or the woman from injuring herself or others. In this scenario, however, the least restrictive restraints must be used and if a medical professional or youth requests that the restraints not be used, the corrections officer must immediately remove them. Shackles may never be used on pregnant prisoners, as outlined in the bill, during labor, delivery and the post-partum recovery period with no exceptions and pertains to all institutions from juvenile detention centers and municipal jails to state prisons.
“We’re lobbying for the broadest protection possible. One reason that it is important to limit restraints throughout pregnancy is to avoid the situation where a corrections official is deciding whether or not someone is in labor and using their own judgment to decide whether or not someone should be shackled,” Ainsworth told me.
If the legislation passes, Washington will become the seventh state in the country to ban the use of restraints on pregnant and laboring incarcerated women. Most recently, New York, New Mexico and Texas have all passed laws prohibiting the use of shackles on pregnant women in nearly all circumstances. Thanks in large part to the Rebecca Project the Federal Bureau of Prisons has a policy against shackling pregnant women as well.
Malika Saada Saar, Executive Director of the Rebecca Project, writes on RH Reality Check that, “The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in September 2008 ended shackling mothers as a matter of routine course in all federal correctional facilities.”
State governments have found the practice to be cruel and unusual punishment, inhumane, degrading and a violation of human rights standards. And medical organizations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Public Health Association to the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) have forcefully condemned the practice as wholly unsafe for both mother and baby.
Tina Johnson, Certified Nurse-Midwife and the Director of Professional Practice and Health Policy at ACNM told me, “Under no circumstances should a woman be confined in a way that inhibits her ability to safely delivery her baby. Labor and birth are active, physical processes that require the fetus to work with the mother’s body in maneuvering through the birth canal. A woman should not lie on her back during labor, as this can severely restrict blood flow to the placenta. In addition, there are certain complications, such as hemorrhage…in which the ability to reposition quickly is critical to facilitating a safe outcome.”
Johnson is clear: “Shackling a woman during pregnancy is cruel, inhumane and unsafe.”
Just ask Kimberly Mays.
“I felt like an animal giving birth in front of its human masters,” Mays told me over the phone.
On August 2, 2000, Mays went into labor at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women.
“Before being transported by ambulance, I was shackled – both hands and feet. I was pretty scared, even though this was not my first time giving birth to a child. I was shackled to the ambulance bed all the way to St. Joseph’s Hospital [in Tacoma, WA], in excruciating pain…
When I got to the labor room, I thought some reprieve from the shackles would occur. On the contrary, only the leg shackles were removed so I could be examined and one wrist was shackled to the bed.”
Mays remained shackled during labor and delivery, screaming in pain. According to Mays, the attending nurse “forcefully covered” her mouth to get her to stop screaming.
“Instead of a mother who was about to give birth, I lost all sense of dignity and self-respect,” she wrote in her birth story, sent to me via email.
After giving birth, Mays remained shackled to the bed, either by one arm or one leg – only unlocked to go to the bathroom or to shower.
Simply, Kimberly writes, “That experience was the most demoralizing event in my entire life.”
Mays, like Brawley, was incarcerated for a non-violent offense and held as a minimum-security prisoner. Brawley told me, “I was a model prisoner and had not one single infraction while in prison. I took every self-help course. I was in college in prison and going to church three times a week.”
Today Kimberly Mays is two-quarters shy of earning a Masters in Public Administration at the Evergreen State College in Washington State. She serves on several boards for organizations “that serve our most marginalized citizens” and is a mother to ten children.
Mays recently testified at the hearing for the Senate bill in the Washington state legislature and says that she hopes her story “will help to alleviate the disgraceful practice of shackling women during labor, which in turn will help alleviate the negative behaviors of prison guards and hospital staff toward women who give birth while incarcerated.”
But hopefully both Mays and Brawley’s stories will do even more than that. The power to change these policies lies not only in the obvious pain and suffering of these two women but in what their stories can excavate about why exactly this practice is needed at all.
When asked if there has ever been a case recorded of an incarcerated woman in labor ever attempting to escape or posing a threat to herself or others in the United States, Sara Ainsworth told me, “We have heard no stories of any incidents in our state – ever.”
The Seattle-based website Publicola reported on the lack of any real opposition to the Washington state bill at the hearing this month:
“Some law enforcement lobbyists, like Jo Arlow of the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs raised concerns about the language of the bill. She said there are rare circumstances where restraint might be necessary for safety’s sake (though she couldn’t actually produce an example of such a case when asked), but overall her group supports the bill.”
The Women in Prison Project in New York City calls shackling “unnecessary” as women cannot run with any significant level of speed during labor or after delivery and therefore are not a flight risk. An informational document from the project states:
“New York City jail policies restricting restraints have been in effect for 20 years without incidents of escape or harm to staff.”
One significant reason for this beyond a woman’s absolute inability to do much more than push, groan and focus on the birthing process during labor is that the majority of incarcerated women in the U.S. are in prison for non-violent crimes.
According to the Women’s Prison Association’s Institute on Women & Criminal Justice, two-thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses. Both drug-related crimes and property offenses make up this 2/3 number. A report put out by the National Institute of Corrections in 2003, written by Barbara Owen & Stephanie Covington, notes that “the majority of incarcerated women are in for first-time, non violent offenses.”
The number of women in prison is only increasing. Over the last thirty years, the female prison population has grown more than 800% while the number of men in prison has grown by only half that.
With 5 percent of incarcerated women in the U.S. pregnant, and the number of women in prison increasing, it’s critical that as a country we make some clear decisions about the ways in which we treat pregnant women and their newborn babies. If our goals are to protect the health and safety of pregnant women and their babies rather than endanger, and ensure the best possible health outcome for mother and child regardless of whether a woman is incarcerated at the time of her labor or not, then we are failing, overall, as a nation.
Let’s review then:
Pregnant and laboring women are proven not to be safety or flight risks. Medical and health professionals from obstetricians to nurse-midwives consider the practice of shackling pregnant and laboring women harmful to womens’ and newborns’ health. Keeping women in ankle, arm and belly restraints while pregnant and/or laboring a federal court has now ruled unconstitutional, while six states have banned the practice. Finally, women themselves are speaking up and letting the world know that being shackled during pregnancy and birth is nothing short of inhumane, robbing them of their self-dignity and human rights.
A sea change is on the horizon in the ways in which we think about this issue. It is likely that Washington State will pass a bill for the Governor to sign. The Rebecca Project continues its campaign, on a national level, against shackling with the work of its unlikely yet powerful collection of anti-shackling allies. Cassandra’s trial is set for June of this year where a judge will hear her case against the Washington State Department of Corrections. Through all of this, both Cassandra and Kim continue their work as mothers like any and all of us, tending to the children who came into this world unaware of the struggle and injustice that surrounded them. But for these two women and so many others in this country, their stories of giving birth in chains will never leave them.
“I am not a worthless piece of trash, but rather a valuable asset to people, families, and the community at large, “ says Kimberly Mays.