Tag Archives: Prisoner’s Rights

Pregnant Inmates’ Rights and Stories

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine you are pregnant. Nine months pregnant. And in prison. Imagine that when you go into labor, your escort to the hospital, an armed guard, insists on keeping your hands and/or feet shackled. Consider the implications of restrained foot movement for a top-heavy pregnant woman. Now, when you arrive at the hospital, in order to ensure that you will not escape (even though you are fully pregnant and having contractions), the guard then attaches you to the hospital bed by hand, foot, or belly restraints. Try to imagine how would you feel about that.

These restraints limit mobility for the birthing mother, which can normally help ease and facilitate the labor process. And the restraints can cause delays if she needs to be prepared quickly for a caesarean section.

The practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant woman is widely condemned by medical groups including the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric & Neonatal Nursing. It’s also been condemned by the United Nations in various treaties and documents, some of which the US has signed on to. But despite the condemnation of this kind of shackling, which is often framed as a type of illegal, cruel and unusual punishment, it still occurs.

Less than twenty states have laws against shackling inmates while giving birth. California just passed a law to forbid shackling a woman during “pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery,” reports Huffington Post. Even in states without such legislation, incarcerated women (and women who were held and not-yet-convicted) have been filing — and winning — lawsuits for their treatment during labor. A case like this was filed in Nevada this summer, reports Reuters. In September, The Tennessean ran a story about a woman receiving $1.1 million in damages from the metro government for the way she was treated while in custody and in labor.

Shackling during pregnancy is not only viewed as a violation of the Eighth Amendment (re: cruel and unusual punishment), but the UN has condemned the practice in their Bangkok Rules (on the treatment of women prisoners). In 2006, the UN cited the US for not maintaining the international standards that they signed on to when ratifying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This topic is new and rich to me, as I’ve been researching it for a term paper. I wanted to share my findings and tie them in with yesterday’s observance of the 2012 Human Rights Day. The theme of the day was “My Voice Counts,” which ties in so well with this anti-shackling group I found while digging around for my project.

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WORTH is a New York based group that lobbied for the state bill that prohibited shackling women in labor. The project expanded their reach to reproductive rights of incarcerated women throughout the US. They are currently collecting testimonials from women who have been incarcerated. The project is called Birthing Behind Bars. They have a website to host blog posts, videos, and audio stories about women who gave birth in shackles or had a range of other pregnancy or postpartum experiences in prison. They’ve even asked for stories about the prison nursery experience, for those women incarceration in institutions with nurseries (that is a topic worth its own post).

The broad range of stories sought by WORTH is a testament to the fact that shackled labor is not the only challenge for pregnant women in prison. Other hurdles including getting adequate nutrition and dealing with the emotional strain of separation from the baby. For women with mental illnesses (a disproportionate portion of the prison population) immediate separation from a newborn can be especially traumatic.

I am not advocating for reform, but as a journalist, I value the power of story-telling. And for the women with traumatic experiences as pregnant inmates, they deserve to share their story. Please comment with links if you have narratives to share.

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Translating trans-prisoners’ rights to all

Transitioning from male to female or female to male is not an easy or inexpensive process. Considered by some insurance companies as an elective or cosmetic surgery, many transpeople must pay for gender reassignment surgery out-of-pocket and draw out the process over years. In many instances the process involves hormone therapy and surgical components.

The number of insurance companies covering sex reassignment surgeries is on the rise reported Huffington Post last December. Recent court decisions in Wisconsin and Massachusetts ruled that the failure to provide hormone treatment and other services constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. So if it’s a constitutionally mandated right for our prisoners to have access to transgender surgery, shouldn’t it also be accessible to law-abiding citizens?

The related Wisconsin case concluded in March of this year, and it began with a state law barring the medical care of transgender inmates. Lambda Legal and the ACLU challenged the state law in federal court and won in 2010. After being upheld in a court of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a subsequent appeal, securing the right for current and future transgender inmates access to appropriate medical care.

The recent decision by a federal court in Massachusetts focused on the right to surgery, discussing the medical implications of gender identity disorder. The fact that convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek (born Robert Kosilek) attempted suicide and self-castration demonstrated the gravity of the disorder and the requirement of surgical treatments. I do, however, worry about labeling all transgender people as disordered. Mental illness and trans-identities are both already stigmatized in the U.S.

Implementing these new rules will be complicated for prison systems, which operate on a strict gender binary. Officials in Massachusetts worried about the added cost and security required to care for a transfemale in a male facility. But just because an transition is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important and necessary – just ask a transgender person.

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