Washington Restricts Shackling of Pregnant Inmates

News Release: 
Friday, April 2, 2010

Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed into law a bill (HB 2747) that bans the use of restraints on female inmates in labor or post-partum recovery except under emergency circumstances, and severely limits the use of restraints on inmates in their third trimester as well. This kind of shackling is not only an infringement upon a woman’s constitutionally protected reproductive freedom, but especially burdens poor women and women of color who are over-represented in the prison system.

“In the big picture, it’s one more step towards banning the practice nationwide.  Here’s hoping we get there – no woman should be subjected to this kind of dehumanizing treatment,” said ACLU of Washington legislative director Shankar Narayan.

Despite a policy in Washington’s Department of Corrections restricting the practice, shackling of pregnant inmates has remained a problem, and other institutions, such as jails and juvenile facilities, have no policies at all. The kinds of health risks posed by the practice were evident during the hearings on the bill, which were highlighted (or lowlighted, as it were) by graphic stories from women who suffered serious physical trauma because they were shackled while giving birth. One woman said she felt like “an animal giving birth before my masters” — but her pleas only resulted in her being physically gagged to prevent her from complaining further.  Despite some nervousness from a few lawmakers, the bill eventually passed handily.

Rep. Jeannie Darneille sponsored the bill; Sen. Karen Fraser sponsored a companion measure in the Senate. The ACLU-WA worked closely with allies, including Legal Voice and the National Organization for Women, to support this law as a priority measure.  National medical associations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, decry the practice of shackling laboring women because it causes needless suffering and poses a danger to women and their pregnancies.

Washington is now the seventh state in the nation to pass anti-shackling legislation.  Lawmakers in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and New York last year acted to ban or limit the use of restraints on pregnant women.  Illinois, California, and Vermont already have limited the use of restraints on pregnant women, as has the Federal Bureau of Prisons.