We Need a Law to Protect Pregnant Prisoners—and Not Just from Shackling

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick filed emergency regulations, good for 90 days, to stop shackling pregnant prisoners. It’s a good first step, but it’s not enough.

Michelle Collette was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham in 2004 when her water broke at 3 a.m. In an interview, she said she discovered her pregnancy through a urine test at the Health Services Unit (HSU)—“You’re as pregnant as you’re ever going to be,” a nurse told her—but then, it took a month and a half to schedule an ultrasound at a Worcester hospital. Collette said every test—diabetes, Spina Bifida—was late, and she worried about the health of her child.

The day of the birth, Collette made it to HSU on her own, and while in early labor, was shackled to a stretcher with one leg chain and one handcuff and transported to the hospital, where she was shackled to the delivery bed for 18 hours. During the birth, the doctor insisted the corrections officer (CO) remove the shackles from her ankles, and thankfully, her son was born healthy. Twenty-eight hours after she entered the hospital, the baby left with his father and Collette’s mother, and Collette was readied to go back to the prison—waist chained, and wearing handcuffs and ankle shackles.

Unlike Collette, Kenzie, who requested to be identified only by her first name, received nutritional counseling and prenatal help from a doula at the Hampden County Women’s Correctional Facility in Chicopee. But she was similarly shackled the day of the birth, and in her case, she arrived at the hospital only 11 minutes before her child was born. “No one believed I was in labor because I wasn’t hysterical and screaming,” she said in an interview. She said that after giving birth, she showered while still wearing the shackles, with a female corrections officer “embarrassingly, inside the shower area, watching.” Kenzie was in the hospital for two days—shackled to the bed with cuffs on her wrist and ankle. “I was not allowed to leave that room.”

Experiences like these are why we need a law for consistent practices for pregnant prisoners across Massachusetts. “There is a growing consensus in the federal courts and among medical, legal, and human rights organizations that shackling pregnant women is unsafe, unnecessary, and inhumane,” said Rachel Roth, a Massachusetts reproductive justice scholar. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all oppose such restraints, which interfere with doctor care of both mother and newborn.

While shackling is the most barbaric of tactics and is now banned by law in 18 states, it is only part of the story of what pregnant women behind bars face in Massachusetts in 2014. Right now, pregnant prisoners cannot be assured of what kind of treatment they’ll receive from institution to institution. Roth said that Massachusetts has a “patchwork of policies,” and prenatal and postpartum care, as well as some measure of privacy during physical examinations, labor, and childbirth can depend on the whim of the institution or individual CO.

The Legislature is now working through a bill that would ensure consistency, a bill that’s actually been kicking around for more than a decade. Filed by Sen. Karen Spilka and others, the bill is now called An Act to Prevent Shackling and Promote Healthy Pregnancies, and was advanced last week by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Safety. Now in the Senate Ways and Means, the bill got a push when Gov. Deval Patrick filed emergency regulations for 90 days to stop shackling practices. That was a good first move, but those regulations will expire and they do not address care of a pregnant woman and her child.

Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said via email that the whole package called for in the bill is critical to healthy pregnancies. In addition to clear limits on shackling, it “… would require that pregnant women be transported safely in vehicles with seatbelts, guarantee adequate nutrition during pregnancy, ensure proper medical care for high-risk pregnancies and addiction, and prohibit isolation of postpartum prisoners.”

Wolfe said that while the governor’s emergency regulation is important, “… a statute is necessary for Massachusetts to make a permanent, definitive statement of public policy that can’t easily be reversed by a future governor. … Further, legislation can—and must—make additional reforms that the governor cannot accomplish alone using his regulatory authority.”

If the Legislature fails to sign this bill into law, women like Michelle Collette and Kenzie may continue to face unhealthy pregnancies. Then Patrick’s hopeful comment from a recent speech at a MassInc forum—“regulation is good but here law would be better”—will become just a footnote on changes that are already taking way too long.