Pregnant and Shackled: A Mass Horror Story

Sarah Betancourt
Dig Boston
Wed, 03/26/2014
Pregnant and Shackled




If you thought all women in the commonwealth have the privilege of giving birth without being cuffed and chained to a gurney, you thought wrong.

Only this past week, after years of Beacon Hill stagnation, has a new version of a bill that bans the shackling of pregnant inmates advanced out of committee and through the state Senate. Governor Deval Patrick has already urged the legislature to put the measure, which is now up for a House vote and would also improve basic standards of care for pregnant women, on his desk this session. That’s optimistic, but it’s only happening in the wake of an unfortunately long struggle.

It’s not hard to find leading medical and public health organizations that oppose the shackling of pregnant women. For years, groups including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have been vocal on this issue, particularly in regards to labor and childbirth. According to Kelly Jakubek, the public information officer for the AMA, her association supports language specifying “an adult or juvenile correctional facility … shall use the least restrictive restraints necessary when the facility has actual or constructive knowledge that an inmate is in the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy.”

Nationally, federal courts have condemned the shackling of women during labor as cruel and unusual punishment. Meanwhile, 18 states have already passed laws against restraints. But in Massachusetts, while the shackling of incarcerated women in labor is already banned in state prisons, the practice remains in county houses of correction. To correct that oversight, in late February, Governor Patrick filed an order to prohibit the shackling of such inmates at the ankle or waist during their second and third trimesters, during labor and birth, and immediately postpartum. With those temporary regulations set to expire in April, the governor has asked lawmakers to make the ban permanent.

Speaking as a former correctional facility inmate, Michelle Montoya gave testimony to NARAL Pro-Choice Mass, and shared her experience with DigBoston. In her first trimester of pregnancy during a six-year sentence at MCI-Framingham, Michelle had four medical appointments canceled due to her facility’s inability to accommodate required travel protocols. Because of missed appointments, she says her tests yielded inaccurate results, including wrongly stating that her child had serious physical deformities and diabetes.

On occasion, Michelle was given parenting classes and prenatal vitamins. She also attended a nutrition class, but says she was unable to heed advice attained there due to the lack of leniency in her prison diet. “Sometimes, we would get an extra ‘pregnancy bag,’ which was an additional banana and apple,” she says, “but often those pregnancy bags would run out and they wouldn’t make any more.”

Eventually, Michelle went into labor in the middle of the night. In her own words: “I was in labor for 18-and-a-half hours. I was brought to Worcester Memorial in an ambulance shackled by one ankle and one wrist. They did not remove those handcuffs or ankle cuffs the entire time I was in labor. I was in a secure hospital room, with two guards, one of them armed, and they kept me handcuffed to the bed. I wasn’t even allowed to walk around during my delivery to ease the pain …

… In the hospital room, I knew something didn’t feel right. Every time I had a contraction, I would see the baby’s heart rate drop. When the contraction was over, his heart rate would bounce back up. As it turns out, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my son’s neck. For some reason, they did not do the normal protocol for an emergency delivery. I was in birth for over 18 hours, and my son was born blue. I was delusional because of the pain.”

Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, says, “Massachusetts’ physicians often struggle between following Department of Health guidelines or following inconsistent internal policies relayed by correctional officers. Often times, pregnant women depend on their physicians to advocate on their behalf to demand that correctional officers remove their shackles.”

During her delivery and birth, Michelle’s family was not called, including her husband and mother. Such revelations–plus concerns over other blatant human rights issues stemming from comparable uses of restraints–have spurred forces like the ACLU, the American Bar Association, and Amnesty International to make putting an end to pregnant shackling a top priority.

“Every time someone learns that pregnant women are still shackled in Massachusetts, they respond the same way: they are uniformly appalled,” says Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Governor Patrick and now the state Senate have stepped up to address this ugly reality, and let’s hope the House shows similar leadership quickly to finally end this barbaric practice once and for all.”

With the current bill passing the Senate with a unanimous vote last week, House lawmakers now hold all the cards. Perhaps the rest of Michelle’s testimony will persuade them to do the right thing …

“After I delivered,” she continues, “I was immediately handcuffed and ankle-cuffed in order to go to the bathroom and shower. I was brought to a secure hospital ward, where for two days, I was able to see my son in-between his testing. After two days, they put me in full shackles, and I walked right out of the hospital through the main door. I remember getting on an elevator with a little girl and her family. She looked at me, in full shackles, horrified. Back at the prison, I went right back into general population. I had no follow-up care.”

UPDATE: DigBoston is happy to report that the Massachusetts House of Representatives has passed the shackling bill.