Ending Childbirth in Chains

Post by Victoria Law

Image from Prison Birth Project website

Image from Prison Birth Project website

Imagine a woman actively in labor. Now, imagine her handcuffed. Attached to those handcuffs is a chain linking her wrists to another chain wrapped around her belly. Attached to that chain is a third, this time leading to shackles keeping her feet together.

This is commonly known as "shackling." The American Medical Association has called shackling unsafe, "medically hazardous," and "barbaric." But in 2008, when CJI awarded its first grant to Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), 47 states, including New York, allowed its prisons and jails to shackle women even during labor and delivery.

With CJI's support, however, WORTH, an organization comprised and led by formerly incarcerated women, pushed shackling into public consciousness and played a pivotal role in organizing to end the practice. The following year, New York passed legislation banning shackling during childbirth. CJI's continued support has enabled WORTH to offer advice and training to other groups fighting to end shackling, such as the Prison Birth Project.

In 2013, CJI gave funding to the Prison Birth Project, which offers doula services and childbirth education to pregnant and parenting women in a western Massachusetts jail. For years, Prison Birth Project had tried to end shackling throughout Massachusetts. In 2013, as organizing heated up and a coalition formed, PBP took steps to ensure incarcerated women's voices were at the table. They brought the latest anti-shackling bill to the women inside the jail, who recommended provisions that women in labor be transported in a van with a seat belt and, after giving birth, not placed in medical isolation. PBP brought these policy recommendations back to the coalition; they were included in the final bill signed into law in 2014.

Legislation has not always ended this inhumane practice, but CJI grantees have kept the pressure on. In 1999, Illinois was the first state to pass anti-shackling legislation. Over a decade later, however, women at Chicago's Cook County Jail reported being shackled while giving birth. CJI grantee Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), which develops and strengthens the leadership of formerly incarcerated women through its Visible Voices program, sued the jail. The result? A settlement of $4.1 million for approximately 80 women who had been restrained while giving birth. CLAIM's efforts also resulted in legislation specifically prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women at Cook County Jail. Neither would have happened had formerly incarcerated women not felt the power to speak out and the certainty that their voices and stories would be taken seriously.

CLAIM is not the only CJI grantee to ensure that anti-shackling legislation is more than words on paper. Although California passed anti-shackling legislation in 2000, women in jails and prisons reported being shackled throughout their pregnancy. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners includes a membership of approximately 175 women behind bars, on parole or on probation. The group regularly visits women in two prisons and holds a twice-monthly empowerment program at the San Francisco County Jail. Through these programs, CCWP has helped develop and support women's leadership. Members have pushed stronger legislation, not only testifying at hearings but also speaking with lawmakers one-on-one to share their experiences and dispel misperceptions that women behind bars are dangerous monsters. In 2012, California passed a law expanding protection against shackling. CJI's continued support enables CCWP to continue its regular prison and jail visits as well as to offer on-going support and leadership trainings to women once they return home.

These groups have helped thrust the barbaric practice of shackling into the national spotlight; today, 21 states have laws prohibiting shackling. These organizations not only center the experiences of currently and formerly incarcerated women, but include them in their leadership. As a funding organization, CJI recognizes that these women are the experts on issues of incarceration—and is committed to supporting their organizing.

How does this happen? CJI is committed to bringing the power to fund back into the movement. Activists, including formerly incarcerated people, and donors partner to identify and decide on funding priorities that strengthen movement-building. Political education plays an integral role in each year's grant making process, enabling CJI to support struggles that have not hit headlines. For instance, CJI member Ellen Barry is the founder of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which has fought to end shackling since 1985 and continues to do so today. Ellen's voice at the table ensures that CJI supports organizing that may not be on other funders' radars. CJI has long recognized the importance of formerly incarcerated women's leadership, and its early support has helped push shackling both into national consciousness and out of birthing rooms.