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Oklahoma Has a New Law Banning the Shackling of Pregnant Women. Will It Make a Difference?

Kristi Eaton

One woman who was shackled during labor while incarcerated worried that officers may not be held accountable when it came to the new law. "They just don’t always follow [the rules] and they don’t view you as a person,” she said.

When Mercedes Curley was sentenced to prison in 2016 in Oklahoma for vandalizing a courthouse, she was around three-and-half months pregnant. During transport, she says she was shackled to her waistband. Later, when she was transported to a local hospital to deliver her baby, she was shackled to the bed railings.

“The entire time I was there I was handcuffed and shackled,” she told Rewire.News. “When I was going into labor, my legs were in the stirrups and my right leg at the ankle was shackled to the railing and my right wrist was shackled to the railing, the entire delivery. There was a male officer at the end of my bed and he was very hostile and rude.”

The experience, Curley said, was devastating.

“I get that I’m in prison, but I’m still a human being and labor is bad. It was my first baby,” she said, adding that she wasn’t allowed to have family present or call anyone and let them know she was going into labor.

Such practices have been going on for decades in Oklahoma, according to research conducted by Democratic state Rep. Regina Goodwin of Tulsa. Goodwin first heard about the practice about a year ago and started looking into it, she said in an interview.

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It didn’t take much time to find women as far back as 20 years ago who had this happen to them, she said. “They told me the same story: that they were chained by their right ankle and right wrist during delivery,” she continued. “I said, ‘let’s see if this has been banned in other cities and states.’” When she found that other states had banned such practices she set out to do the same thing.

In May, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed HB 3393 into law, which directs the use of the “least restrictive restraints on pregnant inmates” and bans the practice of shackling pregnant women in labor while in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Susan Sharp, a sociologist who has extensively studied women in prison in Oklahoma, said in an email that she supports the law, though she thinks there’s a need for exceptions. She said that “shackling presents a risk to the pregnant woman.”

“If her hands are shackled, it might be difficult to catch herself if she falls, for example,” said Sharp. “During labor, it is better in most cases to be able to move about the room. Belly chains present another hazard. The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that I believe that the least necessary restraint should be used with all prisoners and that the physical limitations and issues of the pregnant woman should be taken into account.”

“My meeting the women, hearing their stories about how painful it is, how degrading it is, how they would have a male guard in the room while they are exposed—I just think these women are entitled to some decency and some privacy while they’re delivering a child, and also for the safety of the baby the doctor needs to be able to have these women push without being chained to anything and having these obstructions,” Goodwin said.

In addition, the bill says that pregnant women shouldn’t be chained to other inmates. “If you’re going down stairs and are all chained together, if one woman stumbles, the other six women are going to stumble also. If one of those women is pregnant, you’re going to put the baby in danger,” she added.

The bill also allows women to have a doula—someone to provide support during labor—present during delivery, or a vetted family member, friend or clergy member, Goodwin said. “You should be able to have somebody with you during that moment, because I think it’s a very significant moment in someone’s life,” she said.

D’Marria Monday, who helped craft the legislation and is the Oklahoma leader of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, told Rewire.News that the state’s new law is the “only one in the nation” that both prohibits shackling and allows incarcerated women a support person during delivery. It’s a point the organization hopes to expand on. “We are looking forward to working with DOC to introduce a network of trained prison doulas,” she said.

Goodwin noted that many incarcerated women are non-violent offenders who are released after a year and are reunited with their children, so the delivery needs to be handled in a sensitive manner to allow bonding with the mother.

“They don’t need to be there alone chained to a bed treated like you’re an animal,” she added.

Goodwin said that even though the women are in prison and have done something wrong, “they’re still women, they’re still human beings going through one of the most painful periods that you go through as a human being, which is delivering another human being through your body.”

During the bill’s hearing, some mentioned concerns about the safety of guards and personnel. Goodwin noted, however, that the bill includes exceptions to provide for safety if a woman, for whatever reason, chooses to be violent.

Curley supports the law. “I think it’s a really great law,” she said. “I just don’t know if the officers are really going to be held accountable. That’s my main concern. DOC does have rules and policies. They just don’t always follow them and they don’t view you as a person.”

Monday said that she believes many people don’t realize what goes on. “The violent act of shackling a woman during labor and delivery further perpetuates the trauma that the women have endured,” she said. “This bill is necessary to restore humanity and dignity to incarcerated women. In addition, the use of restraints during transport is generalized towards all incarcerated people. It is without consideration of women’s needs. This bill addresses the gender specific needs of women.”

Monday said she is hopeful DOC will comply with the regulations and looks forward to working with them in the future.

Matt Elliott, a spokesperson for the DOC, said Corrections “normal practice” is to not restrain pregnant women.

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