Maternity and Birthing

How Long Must Californians Wait to Safeguard Pregnant Women’s Rights in Prison?

Rachel Roth

For the second session in a row, the California Legislature has unanimously passed a bill to prohibit the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women. Will the Governor sign it into law?

Cross-posted from MomsRising.

For the second session in a row, the California Legislature has unanimously passed a bill to prohibit the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women. However, uncertainty remains over whether the governor will sign the bill.


Last time, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, claiming that its mandates went outside the scope of the designated government agency’s responsibility.

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Now, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is the one who will decide the bill’s fate, but he will be getting input from the same public safety advisor held over from the previous administration.


Why does this bill matter? Consider the experience of Pauline, who spent part of her pregnancy in the Contra Costa County jail, as described by Karen Shain, Policy Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC):


She went to court at least 10 times, and every time she left the jail, she was shackled – sometimes around her belly, sometimes attached to another prisoner. Near the end of her pregnancy, she developed pre-eclampsia and had to be hospitalized shackled to her bed, having to ask permission from a guard every time she had to go to the bathroom.”


California does have a law on the books prohibiting shackling or handcuffing during transportation to a hospital and during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. But this law has never been fully implemented, especially by county jails. According to a survey by LSPC, nearly two-thirds of counties still do not have policies that conform to the law.


The new bill (AB 568) would not only require the California Corrections Standards Authority to clarify rules for jails and prisons to follow, it would also provide broader protection from shackling to pregnant women than the current law. The bill mandates use of the least restrictive restraints possible throughout pregnancy and applies to transportation from the prison or jail to court dates as well as medical appointments. If signed, this bill would provide the greatest protection against shackling to pregnant women anywhere in the nation.


Organizations including LSPC, the ACLU, the Center for Young Women’s Development, and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice are mobilizing to encourage the governor to sign the bill.


California was one of the first states to recognize the harm of shackling pregnant women, enacting its current law in 2004. After a period of time where no state regulated the practice, there have been enormous strides toward mandating humane treatment of pregnant women, especially during labor and childbirth. Today, 14 states have laws restricting the practice of shackling, mostly passed in the last two years.


As a result of lawsuits, judicial agreements also limit the use of shackles in other jurisdictions, such as New York City and the District of Columbia. The federal prison system has an internal policy to limit shackling. And federal courts from Washington State to Arkansas to Tennessee agree with women that shackling during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery violates their constitutional as well as their human rights.


The California bill charts a course for the next phase of state action against shackling. Will the Governor sign it into law?


You can let Governor Brown know what you think he should do here.

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