A new report from a prisoner advocacy group says that corrections officers in Massachusetts are illegally shackling pregnant inmates, despite a two-year-old law banning the practice. Inmates aren’t supposed to be shackled in the state when they’re in labor, in their second or third trimesters, or immediately post-delivery.

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Massachusetts is one of about 22 states to have passed anti-shackling laws for pregnant inmates; when signing the bill in 2014, Governor Deval Patrick commented, “it blows my mind that I have to sign a law for that.”

Less mind-blowing, perhaps, is a report by a prisoner advocacy group that many counties are failing to follow the law, even putting out written policies that explicitly violate it.

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The report was produced by Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Prison Birth Project; we saw it via Mass Live. It charges that neither the state Department of Corrections nor a single county sheriff’s office is fully implementing the anti-shackling law, and that knowledge of what the law even entails “varies not just from one prison or jail to another, but among corrections personnel who work for the same prison or jail.”

The report says they’ve found examples of women being shackled while in labor, the clearest violation of the law, or restrained to their hospital beds immediately post-delivery, for no particular reason. (Even in “extraordinary” circumstances where the inmate is believed to pose an escape risk, women in labor are only supposed to be handcuffed, not shackled.)

The law also clearly stipulates that pregnant people being transported to the doctor or to court proceedings have to be put in a vehicle with seatbelts, and can only be handcuffed with their hands in front of their bodies (instead of, say, shackles around their bellies or ankles).

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That too is being violated, the report says, in ways that could be extremely dangerous to someone who’s pregnant or still healing post-delivery:

In some cases, corrections’ employees still drive pregnant women to court or medical appointments in vans without seatbelts, putting women at risk of injury from bouncing and sliding across the open benches while restrained by handcuffs. In other cases, corrections staff cause women to miss their court dates or medical appointments by failing to plan for an appropriate vehicle. This failure can result in needlessly extending a woman’s imprisonment when the judge might have released her from custody at the hearing.

In one instance, according to the report, a woman who’d given birth a week ago was taken to court in a van with no seatbelt, restrained, handcuffed, and with a chain around her belly. She’d had a c-section. She spent five hours in the back of the van, according to the report, during which time the bandages holding her incision together “split open.”

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Women interviewed for the report also said they weren’t getting adequate nutrition, the reports says, and said consistently that “they either do not get enough food and feel hungry or they get too many empty calories and not enough fruit, vegetables, and fiber.”

The report calls for the state and the individual counties to develop better plans for housing pregnant inmates, or, even better, find alternatives to incarceration for pregnant people:

Pregnant women are safer when they can freely seek medical attention for signs of complications or labor and when they can give birth free of restraints and with the support of family and friends. While the stakes for pregnant women are especially high because of the risks that prison and jail conditions pose to their health and the health of their fetuses, many individuals, families, and communities would benefit from alternatives to incarceration, for example, people too poor to pay bail while waiting to go on trial and people who come into contact with the criminal justice system because of an underlying mental health challenge, including drug or alcohol use.

Read the full report as a PDF here.


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