Washington State Says No to Shackles on Women during Labor and Childbirth
by Rachel Roth

On March 23, Washington governor Chris Gregoire signed a law to prevent the shackling of pregnant women during labor and childbirth, after a successful campaign that included testimony by women who spoke out about what happened to them when they were imprisoned.

The new law offers protection to incarcerated women and teens throughout Washington, whether they are being held in state prisons, county or city jails, or juvenile prison facilities.

Under the law, corrections personnel cannot use restraints of any kind on women who are in labor or giving birth. Throughout the third trimester of pregnancy and during postpartum recovery, they can use limited restraints on women under “extraordinary” circumstances. This exception requires an assessment that an individual woman poses a risk of harm to herself or others, or is likely to escape.

Pregnant women are never to be restrained with leg irons or waist chains.

This law is the seventh such statute to be adopted in the United States. The other six states that restrict shackling by statute are Illinois, California, Vermont, New Mexico, Texas, and New York.
Pennsylvania may soon join this list. The State Senate unanimously passed a similar measure on March 17. As the sponsor of the Pennsylvania bill said, “This is not something that happens every day, but this is something that could happen on any given day.” His explanation and the wide margins by which legislators vote for these bills show a growing understanding of the need for oversight to deter jail and prison personnel from restraining women during labor and childbirth.

These restraints are painful and interfere with women’s ability to move during labor. They interfere with medical care, and go beyond interference to endanger women when emergencies arise, because it takes time to unlock and remove handcuffs, ankle restraints, and other hardware used to shackle women to hospital beds.

Women describe the experience of being shackled during labor and childbirth as deeply frustrating and humiliating. In the words of Casandra Brawley, who is suing the Washington Department of Corrections for shackling her during labor, “I had committed a crime and made mistakes in my life, but I am still a human being. I was treated like a caged animal. No other woman should have to experience what I went through.”

Being restrained during labor and childbirth is only one of the things that pregnant women in prison go through. Legislators who recognize the need to regulate shackling should continue to investigate the conditions of confinement for pregnant women. These conditions include inadequate prenatal care and the failure to respond to pregnancy-related medical emergencies, both of which jeopardize the health and safety of women who are in the government’s custody.

For more information on the Washington law, see the web site of Legal Voice.