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Massachusetts Senate Votes for Childbirth Without Chains

(Photo: Thomas Nielsen / Flickr)

UPDATE: On Wednesday, March 26th, all 146 members of the Massachusetts House voted to end the shackling of incarcerated women during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has already stated that he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk. After years of organizing by currently and formerly incarcerated women, advocates and allies, Massachusetts will become the 19th state to prohibit childbirth in chains.

On Thursday, March 20, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed S2012, a bill that limits the shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor and delivery. The bill also requires minimum standards of medical care for pregnant women in jail and prison. “There is absolutely no reason to shackle pregnant women,” Senator Karen Spilka, the bill’s sponsor, told Truthout hours before the Senate vote. “It’s unsafe, inhumane and barbaric.”

Spilka was not the only Massachusetts lawmaker who thought so. The month before, on February 20, Governor Deval Patrick announced emergency regulations prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women in Massachusetts jails and prisons while they are in their second trimester, as well as when they are in labor, delivery and postpartum recovery.

Shackling refers to the practice of restraining people in jail or prison. A person who is shackled is handcuffed, and those handcuffs are attached to a chain that leads to another chain around her waist. From that waist chain, which formerly incarcerated women state is as heavy as a bicycle chain, another chain trails downward to the ankles, which are also cuffed together. Only 18 states have legislation prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery.

Both the bill’s passage in the Senate and the governor’s regulations come after years of education and advocacy by reproductive justice advocates, prisoner rights activists and currently and formerly incarcerated women. In the past, bills prohibiting shackling during childbirth have been introduced in the House and assigned to the Judiciary Committee where no further action has been taken. This year, however, Senator Spilka also introduced her bill, which was assigned to the Public Safety Committee. After a December 2012 hearing, which included testimony from prison justice advocates, reproductive rights advocates and prison birth doulas, the Committee’s Vice Chair stated, “It just shocks me [that] this still happens in this day and age.”

Nearly 30 Years of Action

In 1985, women incarcerated at Massachusetts’ state women’s prison, MCI Framingham, filed McDonald v. Fair, a class action lawsuit to improve prenatal and postpartum services. At the time, giving birth while chained to the bed was standard procedure.

Seven years later, in 1992, the court issued a consent decree establishing minimum standards of care for pregnancy behind bars. These standards of care included:

  • Required consultation with a dietician;
  • A medical screening upon arrival in the prison;
  • Regular prenatal and postpartum medical examinations and treatment as medically indicated;
  • Eliminating the practice of using waist chains during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Ankle cuffs and handcuffs were still permitted during any stage of pregnancy, although the consent decree limited shackling to one wrist cuff during labor and delivery.

As late as 2013, however, pregnant women were being restrained during labor, sometimes by more than one cuff. Kenzie, who gave birth while in jail, recalled being taken to the hospital in handcuffs. “I had to go into the police car sideways because I couldn’t fit through the door otherwise,” she told Truthout. Once at the hospital, she recalled, “I couldn’t get my pants off or get onto the bed for an examination because I was handcuffed.” Only after medical personnel ordered the cuffs removed was she able to undress, climb onto the bed and be examined.

After the baby was born, Kenzie’s ankle was shackled to the bed. She went to the bathroom with her ankles cuffed together. She showered with her ankles cuffed together, while a nurse and a guard monitored her. The following day, she noted, she was again ankle-cuffed when showering, but the guard stayed outside the bathroom and continuously talked to her through the open door. “I guess they wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” she reflected. “But I was being shackled to take a shower and my baby is right there. Where was I going to go?”

Forty-eight hours after delivering her baby, Kenzie was brought back to the jail. “I had my baby ripped out of my arms by a nurse,” she recalled. “I’m bawling my eyes out and trying to get dressed and the COs [correctional officers] are telling me, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!'” No longer in labor, Kenzie was placed in both handcuffs and ankle cuffs. “This was the first time I had ankle cuffs on outside the hospital,” she said. “It was really hard to walk in those things. They hurt. The back of my ankles had raw spots from the cuffs digging into them.”

Kenzie’s experience is not an anomaly. Marianne Bullock is the lead doula for the Prison Birth Project, an organization that provides support to pregnant women (including Kenzie) in a Massachusetts jail. In December 2013, she testified before the Senate’s Public Safety Committee, stating:

My clients are brought to the hospital in handcuffs, in the back of a police car, with hard metal seats and no seat belt –more often than not in the throes of active labor, a handful have delivered only minutes after they arrive at the hospital. 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.

After they give birth, they often shower with legs chained together, they shuffle across the room in leg irons to give their babies their first baths and then what is often the most devastating moment of all – when they hand the baby over to a care giver, they are put back in five point restraints and shackled ankle to ankle, ankle to belly, belly to wrist and wrist to wrist and walked out of the hospital, with a deflated belly and leaky breasts, many with stitches from hard deliveries and demoralized after being forced to let go of their newborns.

In 2001, Massachusetts House Representative Kay Khan introduced a bill that would prohibit shackling and waist restraints for incarcerated women. Instead, women would be handcuffed in front of their bodies so that, if they fell, they had some chance of breaking the fall. Khan’s bill did not pass. She introduced similar bills during the following years. Her latest, H1433, which prohibits shackling and provides for regular prenatal and postpartum care, was introduced in the House this session but is still awaiting a hearing from the Judiciary Committee.

“What Really Changed Is That We Began to Organize”

When the Prison Birth Project first began providing services in 2008, they worked with women in jail to compile a Top Five list. On the top of that list was ending shackling. “We, as a small organization, don’t have the capacity or finances to lead a campaign,” Marianne Bullock told Truthout, “but we have knowledge and experience around the issue.”

In late 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts began focusing on the issue. “Legislative sessions in Massachusetts run for two years,” explained Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts. The ACLU reached out to Kay Khan, who had introduced a bill prohibiting shackling for the 2011-2012 legislative session. They worked with her on strengthening the bill to both end shackling during childbirth and ensure standards of prenatal and postpartum care.

“It wasn’t just the language that was changed. What really changed was that we began to organize,” Wolfe told Truthout. The ACLU hired an attorney who interviewed women who were or had been pregnant in Massachusetts jails and prisons. “To be honest, we weren’t sure what we would find,” he recalled. “It was shocking to look at the report of those interviews. The Department of Corrections said they didn’t shackle during labor, but there’s a mismatch between what they say and what women have reported while giving birth.” The ACLU also reached out to the Prison Birth Project.

In 2011, the ACLU testified in support of the bill before the Judiciary Committee. So did members of the Prison Birth Project, including one formerly incarcerated woman. “We had very little experience in the State House,” Bullock recounted. After the woman testified, Bullock recalled that she was asked, “If this was really happening, then the governor would issue an executive order. Why don’t you get an executive order?”

The bill was sent for further study and the 2011-2012 session ended.
“In general, there’s a reluctance to legislate to solve a problem that isn’t clearly understood,” reflected Wolfe. “This session [2013-2014], we decided to also have someone pushing on the Senate side.” That person was Senator Karen Spilka.

The Massachusetts chapter of NARAL also joined the fight. “Our mission is to ensure that women have the right to make personal decisions regarding the range of reproductive choices, including bringing healthy children into this world,” Megan Amundson, the executive director of NARAL Massachusetts, told Truthout. “Pushing this bill falls squarely in our mission to ensure that women have access to safe and healthy pregnancies.” With Wolfe, Amundson met with Governor Patrick in 2013 to discuss what Amundson called the “patchwork quilt of policies and authorities” around pregnancy behind bars. “We walked away thinking he wasn’t going to take action,” she recalled.

Undeterred, they also worked with the chair of the Public Safety Committee to move the bill out of the committee. “We did press work to communicate this issue to the broader public,” Amundson said. “The biggest challenge is getting the information out there. Shackling women in labor is medieval. That this happens today in 2014 is pretty shocking. So we needed to make people aware of the problem.”

This past year, groups that had been working around shackling and other prison issues formed the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition. Members ranged from grassroots prisoner support groups, such as Black and Pink, Families for Justice as Healing and the Real Cost of Prisons Project, to larger organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild and the National Organization for Women. Coalition members mobilized to send hundreds of calls to the legislature within a few months.

On December 11, 2013, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security heard the bill. “There was electricity in the room,” recounted Wolfe. “The committee members were shocked and upset by what they heard.”
Bullock agreed. “This time, there was strong support from the coalition and a strong support network. [After I testified], legislators came up to me to thank me, saying that this was the first time they’d heard about this issue. They wanted to meet with the Prison Birth Project and learn more.”

The Prison Birth Project has also involved women behind bars in other ways. “The other day, I brought in the current legislation and workshopped it with them,” Bullock recounted. “Later that day, Prison Birth Project met with other Coalition members and we conveyed the women’s direct feedback, like their preference for being transported in a squad car with seatbelts rather than in a paddywagon. We do a lot of sitting in a circle, talking about our experiences and tying them to what we can do to make the legislation more comprehensive to address experiences inside.”

The Senate voted 39 to 0 in favor of the bill. It now goes before the House. “It will be our job to make sure that House members understand what the implications are if the bill isn’t passed,” stated Amundson.

Governor Patrick has stated that he will sign the legislation once it reaches his desk.

Massachusetts Should Be Strong

“All women have the right to safe and healthy pregnancies and birth experiences,” Senator Spilka told Truthout, noting that the second portion of S2012 focuses on standards for prenatal and postpartum care. “Massachusetts should be strong in this and go on record as prohibiting shackling.”

“It’s exciting,” Kenzie said when asked about the Senate vote. “It’s moving forward. I’m excited knowing that my story helped make a difference.” She admitted that she was originally not confident about sharing her story but, with the support of Prison Birth Project, she did. Now, she says, “I’ll do whatever I have to do to help continue pushing for it. I never want another woman to go through what I had to go through.”

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