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Law Forbidding the Shackling of Pregnant Women Fails to End Practice

Four years after Pennsylvania passed legislation prohibiting the shackling of pregnant prisoners after their second trimester, the law is frequently disobeyed. As a result, many prisoners are enduring “barbaric” shackling while in labor.

                PLN previously reported on this inhumane practice and the law’s passage. [See: PLN December 2014, p. 30.] The law was pushed by Danyell Williams, who runs a Philadelphia doula program for prisoners, after she viewed a prisoner birthing in 2008.

                Williams watched the prisoner give birth while her right arm was handcuffed to a bed rail. After the birth, she watched the guard remove the handcuff and clamp her ankle to the bed using chains and handcuffs to create length to allow breastfeeding.

                “And I am sitting here watching this whole process and I’m thinking, this is totally ridiculous,” said Williams. “And it’s just something very barbaric, and as an African – American woman watching another African – American woman, I was just thinking about all sorts of things.”

                The event pushed Williams to advocate for an end to that barbaric practice, and by 2010 she had a bunch of advocates and legislators speaking against it. The result was the passage of the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, which makes the shackling of prisoners in their second trimester illegal unless some exceptions apply.

                While Pennsylvania acts quickly to enforce new criminal laws against its citizens, it has delayed the implementation of the Healthy Birth Act. The ACLU reported that hospitals across the state are documenting cases of prisoners coming in to give birth while shackled. Records from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections show that in 2012 – 13 reporting jails shackled pregnant women 109 times. A Freedom of Information request from The Pulse to Blair County Prison, which houses just 55 women, found over 100 incidences of pregnant women being shackled in an eighteen month period.

                Those records began with citing “safety reasons” as justification. Then, a few months later it was for “security reasons.” Finally, it was just for “security.” When asked about the frequency of shackling despite the law prohibiting it, Blair County Warden Matt Johnston said, “I’m not interested in talking about that.”

                “Now, we’re just working to get it implemented effectively,” said the law’s primary sponsor, State Sen. Daylin Leach. “The fact is when you do pass new legislation, you do have to notify people as to the requirements of that legislation.” Lack of notice never prevented a citizen from being prosecuted, but this law deals with the criminal justice system.

                “You have the individual correctional facilities policing themselves,” said Williams in describing the implementation problem. “There’s no uniform accountability. I think if there was an identified body that could really be held accountable, and there were some concrete consequences to violating the bill, it wouldn’t be violated as much.”


Sources: The Pulse;

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