Maine Gov. Paul LePage made national news earlier this month by claiming to have “pocket vetoed” 19 bills that became law without his signature when he failed to take any action in the ten-day window to sign or veto legislation. Popping up in my inbox are messages forwarded by allies saying, “An accidental win!” and, “Maine—accidentally—outlaws shackling pregnant women?”
But positive policy change is no accident, especially when it improves conditions for people in prison or other marginalized groups—as is the case with “An Act to Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners and Pregnant Juveniles,” one of the laws that took effect without the governor’s signature. While quirks of procedure, good timing, and other “accidents of fate” can propel legislation forward, winning takes hard work, and these new policies in Maine are no exception.
Take the anti-shackling law, which includes broad protections for pregnant women in state prisons, county jails, and youth incarceration facilities. In addition to strict limits on shackling, the law, which takes effect 90 days after the legislative session ends, respects women’s privacy by posting officers outside the hospital room when women are giving birth and promotes women’s rights by requiring that they be told about the law.
Starting last year, the ACLU of Maine reached out to find women who had been shackled during pregnancy to understand the scope of the problem in the state. They worked to get a broad range of groups on board. The Maine Choice Coalition transformed itself into the Maine Alliance for Reproductive Freedom and took on the issue as part of its new emphasis on reproductive justice, a framework that recognizes the equal importance of access to prenatal and abortion care, especially for low-income women and women of color, the very women who are most likely to be imprisoned.
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After getting legislators to introduce and co-sponsor a bill, the ACLU prepared for a hearing before the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, at which members of the Alliance—along with the Christian Civic League, the state chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and one very courageous woman willing to brave the stigma of being identified as a former prisoner—spoke in support of the bill. People wrote op-eds and letters to the editor. Organizations mobilized members.
The result of this hard work? The bill passed, on a voice vote in the senate and with a 101-40 vote in the house. These votes demonstrate strong support for the bill and the principles it embodies. The advocacy community fully expected the governor to veto the bill, as he had already done with scores of measures, including every bill sponsored by a Democrat, and was ready to lobby the legislature to override the veto.
The organizing in Maine has precedent in other states. Illinois led the nation by enacting the first law against shackling in 1999. Some might call that law an “accident” because of how it came about: While advocates were visiting legislators to discuss another issue of concern to pregnant women and mothers, the need for alternatives to incarceration, some women described the traumatic experiences they’d had being shackled during pregnancy and birth. A legislator decided to introduce a bill as a result of those conversations. But to call this policy victory an accident would erase the fact that Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM) was already up and running and had already invested in developing the leadership of formerly incarcerated women to speak out on the issues.
Or take Massachusetts. Bills to mandate minimum standards of treatment for pregnant women, including limits on shackling, had languished in the legislature for years. Then in 2014, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story about how prison officers killed a young man by using improper restraint techniques. Later that week, Gov. Deval Patrick faced a large audience of concerned advocates at a forum on criminal justice. When he acknowledged what had happened, he also said that the state would end the use of restraints on women in labor, giving the press something positive to write about.
There’s no question the timing of the news on deadly restraints and the governor’s announcement gave the campaign against shackling a boost. After all, the governor urged the legislature to send him a bill. But again, because a coalition had already formed and begun organizing, advocates were able to capitalize on the publicity and turn it into momentum. Coalition members who had experienced shackling were emboldened to speak out. Without the coalition, a bill might have passed, but without its grassroots effort and input, the final law would have been narrower in scope.
A well-run campaign does not guarantee automatic success. In California, for example, advocates managed to get unanimous votes on a bill that expanded protection against shackling in 2010, only to have Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger veto it. The next year, they got another unanimous vote—only to have newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown veto the bill. Finally, the third time the bill passed, Gov. Brown signed it.
Activists have shown tremendous creativity and resourcefulness in their varied campaigns against shackling pregnant women. In Maryland and New York, for example, advocates produced compelling videos; in New York, they demonstrated in front of the governor’s office. In Colorado, an investigative journalist kicked off a campaign that resulted in a law against shackling; in Washington, a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections boosted the legislative efforts. In Maryland and Massachusetts, organizers wrote open letters and petitions to educate the public and marshal support.
By erasing the crucial work that goes into achieving better public policies, the “oops, it’s just an accident” narrative deprives organizations and coalitions of the credit and recognition they need to continue building their base and their reputation for the next challenge. This way of framing hard-won victories creates a disincentive to invest in grassroots organizing and to get involved as individuals. As the examples described here show, without advocates’ dedication, strategizing, and sweat equity, governors wouldn’t have bills to pass in the first place.