By Hannah Brass, ACLU of Idaho
I am the Public Policy Director/Counsel for the ACLU of Idaho — that means I have the privilege of lobbying the Idaho Legislature on all things ACLU. If you don’t know much about Idaho and its politics, let me just tell you: my job is challenging. At the beginning of each session we have goals of doing wonderful proactive work, but by the time week two or three of the session rolls around, it feels like we are on the defense and have little time for our proactive work.
This year however, we celebrated a major victory when our anti-shackling bill, H.B. 163, became law. This victory, like most, did not come easy. We first met with the Idaho Department of Corrections in the fall of 2009 to discuss our concerns about the practice of shackling pregnant women at the facility. They agreed to look into it, and a couple months later they made some changes to their internal policy and restricted the use of restraints on pregnant women during labor and delivery. It was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough. For instance, the policy change only applied to state-run institutions and not the jails that serve 44 counties in Idaho. So, we decided to push for legislation during the 2010 legislative session.
I was really excited and thought it would be a no-brainer for the legislature — how could anyone think shackling a pregnant woman during labor and delivery is a good idea? We even had the support of groups like Right to Life Idaho, who we generally don’t get to work with — at least not on the same side of an issue. And things did go well right out of the gate in early 2010. But then Idaho Department of Corrections expressed opposition to the bill, and at that point, the bill was dead for the session.
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Though disappointed, we did not give up. Early in the 2011 session we worked to get the support of the Idaho Department of Corrections. And we introduced the bill with an even broader coalition of partners that was as diverse as they come — the ACLU of Idaho leading the charge, the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, Catholic Charities of Idaho, Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, and Right to Life Idaho. Indeed, the diversity of our coalition was mentioned more than once, and not without laughter, during committee hearings. But even with this universal support, I won’t lie; I was still a little worried. Our legislature has become more conservative, and there was no end to major legislative issues up for debate this session — maybe legislators would simply push our bill aside for what they perceived to be “more important” issues.
I’m happy to say, I was wrong. H.B. 163 passed both the House and the Senate unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on April 5, 2011.
Thanks to this new law, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, every pregnant woman who is incarcerated in Idaho is protected against the use of restraints of any kind during labor and delivery. In addition, prisons and jails must give notice to all female prisoners about the existence of this law, and if restraints are ever deemed necessary, the reasons must be documented in writing.
While there is still room for improvement (for instance, this law doesn’t address the problem of restraints earlier in pregnancy, or during recovery), it is a giant step in the right direction. So, as always, our work is not done, and we will continue to monitor what happens to pregnant women in prisons and jails around the state. But for now, it was a great way to end the session. Of the 14 states considering anti-shackling bills this year, Idaho is the first to pass one into law this session. More importantly, in doing so, Idaho rightly joined 10 other states in enacting a commonsense piece of legislation that protects the dignity and safety of incarcerated pregnant women.