When Will California Stop Shackling Pregnant Women?

By Bethany Woolman, Communications Fellow, ACLU of Northern California

In California, we shackle pregnant women in prison.

And despite widespread opposition, we will continue to do so.

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have ordered county jails and prisons to stop shackling pregnant women. The bill, AB1900, required new guidelines on restraining pregnant women and would have encouraged counties to adopt these policies. It had overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the legislature without a single “no” vote.

The governor, however, opted to let the dangerous practice of shackling pregnant women continue.

As I type, jails and prisons across the state are forcing pregnant women to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs – even through the first minutes of labor. This practice is inhumane.

The bottom line is this: shackling a pregnant woman puts her health at risk. Doing so can result in nasty falls and cause miscarriage or other serious injuries. Accordingly, doctors have opposed the use of shackles on pregnant women.

And it gets worse.

Although it’s already against California law to shackle women during labor, AB1900 would have gone further to prevent shackling of women at all stages of pregnancy while they are in transit. Disturbingly, only one third of county jails currently enforce pre-existing law preventing shackling of women in labor, making the passage of AB1900 even more crucial. This is unacceptable. Shackles can impair a doctor’s ability to treat a woman in labor in an emergency situation, putting her health at risk. No doctor should have to argue with correctional officers over when to unshackle a patient.

Shackling these women is cruel and unusual punishment – a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Incarcerated pregnant women have a right to safe treatment during pregnancy and delivery. The use of shackles violate that right and puts the health of pregnant women at risk. Kudos to the supporters and advocates who work every day to unshackle pregnant women, and to the legislature for advancing the bill. And shame on Gov. Schwarzenegger for keeping such a barbaric policy in place.

Although it is regretful that the governor clearly undermined the legislature on this issue, it is heartening that AB 1900 passed both houses of the California legislature with tremendous support from across the political spectrum. A tide of public opinion and awareness is turning. The movement to end the shackling of pregnant women is growing. This year Washington state joined ranks with a handful of other states to limit the shackling of women in labor. We hope that in the future these protections will extend to women in all stages of pregnancy. Let’s keep the drumbeat going.