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Broad Support for North Carolina Bill to Bar Shackling Pregnant Prisoners

The bill specifically bars the use of any kind of restraint on women serving time in prison or jail, or awaiting trial if they are in their second or third trimesters, actively going through labor, or if it is during the crucial six-week period following the delivery of the child. The only exception to this ban is the use of handcuffs or wrist restraints placed in front of a pregnant woman, not in labor, when transporting her outside the jail or prison.

Additionally, the legislation seeks to ensure proper nutrition and hygiene for the child. It also mandates that the mother is allowed enough time to develop a secure bond by providing her and the baby with extended time together after delivery, and allowing women in both low- and medium-security institutions routine visitation with their children. It further provides broader protections for by limiting bodily inspections of female prisoners by male guards.

The specific wording of the legislation targets imprisoned women and women awaiting trial, which is intended to counteract flaws in a 2017 North Carolina bill that attempted to ban the practice in state prisons. The Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, admitted that some prison workers—particularly in jails—have not followed the 2017 law and are still shackling pregnant women.

The bipartisan consensus on the need for the bill is illustrated in its sponsorship by a Republican state representative and physician, Kristin Baker. She said the legislation protects “the health and well-being of our women who are pregnant and incarcerated and other vulnerable children as well.” Not only have both Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina reached a consensus on the need for the legislation, but a wide array of interest groups, ranging from Planned Parenthood to the American Conservative Union, also support it.

The idea has garnered support from medical experts for the past decade. In 2011, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that shackling imprisoned women during their birth endangers both the life of the mother and the child since it “interferes with the ability of health care providers to safely practice medicine.”

In one tragic incident, a North Carolina gynecologist, Dr. Kerianne Crockett, recalled how in 2019 a shackled and incarcerated patient of hers in Greenville Hospital had an unsuccessful delivery that resulted in the child’s death. Crockett clarified that it is unclear as to whether the restraints directly caused the tragic results. However, she said “I can’t imagine that being physically restrained during [labor] is conducive to anyone’s health or well-being...The difficult and heartbreaking experience was turned into a traumatic one by the shackles she was forced to wear.”

In another personal recounting, Kirstie Puckett Williams, the leader of a criminal justice reform effort at the North Carolina ACLU, recalled her experience of being jailed in Mecklenburg County during her pregnancy more than a decade ago. Williams described receiving no prenatal care, and did not realize she was having twins until five days after pleading guilty to drug charges.

Williams told of being shackled while pregnant and how this practice specifically harms Black women. She described how being restrained at the wrists made it a challenge to walk or keep her oversized pants from falling down. “Let’s put the partisan politics away and provide dignity for incarcerated people,” Williams declared in a terse yet powerful statement.

Currently, 28 women are being held in the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women according to Ishee. If passed, the bill would bring some dignity and humanity to the already austere and challenging process of delivering a child behind bars.  


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