By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Pregnant women prisoners in Massachusetts would not be allowed to be restrained with shackles, except in cases of flight risk or safety concerns, under legislation that unanimously passed the Senate Thursday.
Sen. Karen Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland who sponsored the bill (S 2063), called it "shocking" that in 2014 pregnant women are still shackled in Massachusetts.
"It is pretty clear that all women, I don't care if you are in prison or not, all women deserve a safe, healthy pregnancy, and a safe, healthy delivery," Spilka said on the Senate floor before the bill passed 39-0.
Spilka said she has heard of instances in Massachusetts where women gave birth with their ankles and hands restrained by the iron chains. There are no uniform regulations on using shackles on pregnant inmates. In February, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a 90-day emergency regulation prohibiting the practice of shackling women during their second and third trimesters.
If the legislation is approved by the House and signed by the governor, Massachusetts would join 18 other states that ban the use of shackles on pregnant inmates.
Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, said she first filed similar legislation several years ago after visiting women in the Hampden County Prison.
"I was never so shocked to find out we don't have anti-shackling legislation," Creem said. "I am amazed that somebody could think that someone in the process of giving birth could get off the table and go over and do something to someone."
Advocates say the restraints increase a women's risk of falling and injuring herself or the baby. During labor and delivery, the iron chains interfere with a doctor's ability to care for the patient, particularly in emergencies during delivery, according to NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
"Not only is the shackling of women and inmates inhumane, it is clearly unnecessary," Spilka said. "The thought of a woman during labor jumping up and thinking to herself 'Oh, well this is a great opportunity to escape...."
In other states where the restraints are prohibited on pregnant women, no one has tried to escape during childbirth, according to Spilka.
Shackles can only be used if corrections officers believe the inmate poses a safety or flight risk, under the legislation. In those instances, a woman's hands can only be locked in front of her body, not behind, and the devices cannot be used on the legs, Spilka said.
Lauren Petit, a staff attorney at Prisoners' Legal Services, said policies at county jails and state prison vary.
"Women have different experiences, depending on whether they're being held at MCI Framingham or Bristol County Jail, or the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center," Petit said in a statement. "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."
Pregnant women in prison tend to have high-risk pregnancies because they most likely did not receive proper pre-natal care or good nutrition, according to Spilka and advocates pushing the bill.
"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," Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of Health Care for All, said in a statement.