Why Do Our Jails Shackle Pregnant Women?
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 13 th. 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 18 th, 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.