On the fronts of gender equity and civil rights, there was good news out of Washington state last week. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill (PDF) that bans the use of restraints on female inmates in labor or post-partum recovery except under emergency circumstances, and severely limits the use of restraints on inmates in their third trimester as well. This kind of shackling is not only an infringement upon a woman’s constitutionally protected reproductive freedom, but especially burdens poor women and women of color who are over-represented in the prison system.
Despite a policy in Washington’s Department of Corrections restricting the practice, shackling of pregnant inmates has remained a pervasive problem, and other institutions, such as jails and juvenile facilities, have no policies at all. The kinds of health risks posed by the practice were evident during the hearings on the bill, which were highlighted (or lowlighted, as it were) by graphic stories from women who suffered serious physical trauma because they were shackled while giving birth. One woman said she felt like “an animal giving birth before my masters” — but her pleas only resulted in her being physically gagged to prevent her from complaining further. Despite some nervousness from a few lawmakers, the bill eventually passed handily.
The ACLU of Washington worked closely with allies to support this law as a priority measure. Washington is now the seventh state in the nation to pass anti-shackling legislation. In the big picture, it’s one more step towards banning the practice nationwide. Here’s hoping we get there — no woman should be subjected to this kind of dehumanizing treatment.