New York State bans shackling prisoners during childbirth

Earlier this summer, Human Rights Watch (one of many organizations that campaigned to end the policy of shackling pregnant inmates) wrote to the New York State Assembly:

Shackling of women in these circumstances represents a grave health risk and an unacceptable and unnecessary affront to women’s dignity. By passing NYS 1290, the New York state legislature would join a growing community of medical authorities, international bodies, and penal systems that have come out against this dangerous practice and in favor of ensuring the human rights and constitutional rights of women in state custody. We urge you to vote in favor of this important legislation.

Women who are shackled are at risk for injury during transportation to medical appointments, can suffer added pain during delivery, and may be deprived of appropriate care during examinations and delivery.[ii] Officials from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have stated that “physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and the fetus … thus, overall putting the lives of women and unborn children at risk.”[iii] This risk is heightened by the fact that the pregnancies of women in custody are usually already high-risk.[iv] In addition, the humiliation brought on by the shackling is inflicted on a population with a high incidence of past sexual or physical abuse.[v] Finally, it is inflicted without a persuasive security justification: The large majority of women in prison are there on account of convictions for non-violent offenses,[vi] and those jurisdictions that have restricted the use of shackles have not reported security problems.[vii]

The Assembly, to its credit, passed legislation that bans shackling unless the woman in question is a threat to hospital staff or guards. New York Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law this week. This change in policy is, as Michael Mechanic put it in Mother Jones, “a small, humane step for a very, very troubled American institution.”

Six states now prohibit shackling inmates during childbirth under either all of most circumstances. Forty-four more to go.

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