California sheriffs organize against pregnant women

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tamaya at a rally to stop shackling.
By Tamaya Garcia, Center for Young Women’s Development

Over the past two years, I have worked alongside an amazing group of women to pass a common-sense bill for California moms. Assembly Bill 568 (Skinner) would limit the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant women to the least restrictive restraints possible.

Translation: It would end the use of belly chains, leg irons, ankle restraints and other barbaric shackling devices that are used on pregnant women in jails and prisons across our state. Yes, shackles reminiscent of slavery are still being used on pregnant women as far long as 8 ½ months.

Medical professionals agree that it’s time for a change. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) was so moved by this issue that they became co-sponsors of the bill. ACOG opposes the use of any restraints on pregnant women because it increases the risk of falling and leaving the pregnant woman, whose balance is already compromised, unable to break those falls.

When I tell my friends about the bill, their response is usually a quiet gasp followed by a confused expression because they are in disbelief. “We actually do that?” Yes, “we” do. We shackle pregnant women.

Now we have a bill on the Governor’s desk that would change that. The bill soared through the legislature without a single voice in opposition. Through an online petition and letter campaign, thousands of individuals and over 50 organizations across the country joined together to voice their support of the bill.

CYWD delivered petitions to Gov Brown in support of the bill.
Those of us working on this bill, including women who have been incarcerated while pregnant, have had a growing sense of excitement. We were so close we could almost taste a future where California joined the federal government and the growing number of states that have already passed laws that limit the use of shackles on pregnant women.

We worked hard crafting this bill and creating the momentum it needed to pass. We educated our legislators, testified at hearings, and mobilized our communities in support of this bill. And, until very recently, we had no opposition. As medical professionals, human rights advocates, formerly incarcerated people and every day folks began calling attention to this barbaric practice, it is has become increasingly difficult to defend. We began to believe that California was ready to take this powerful step forward.

Sadly, we were recently informed of an organized effort by the California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA) to convince Governor Brown to kill this bill. As of today, in addition to CSSA, both Alameda and Sonoma County Sheriffs’ Departments sent the Governor a letter identical to that of CSSA’s asking for a veto of the bill.

Last year, when then-Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the same bill (known as AB 1900), he told us it was over a technicality, a concern raised by the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR), questioning who was responsible for overseeing the transport of inmates. This year, we had several meetings with the CDCR regarding their concerns and they remained neutral when the bill was reintroduced.

During the life of AB 1900 the CSSA did not voice any concerns nor did they oppose the bill. So why now is CSSA organizing so strongly to maintain the right to shackle pregnant women?

Their concern, as written in their letter to the Governor, is the potential for complications if they are required to justify their use of “least restrictive” shackles, especially if a lawsuit were to arise. So rather than have the responsibility to make and defend their own good decisions, they would rather use a practice that flies in the face of good medical practice and basic human rights. They are protecting their own freedom to put a pregnant woman at risk of injury, rather than protecting that mother and child.

It is not news that California prisons rank as some of the worst and most dangerous in the country. The US Supreme Court released a statement defining the California prison conditions as “tortuous.” Incidents such as the execution of potentially innocent Troy Davis and the 6000 people participating in a statewide hunger strike today are symptoms of a broken system. The ongoing human rights violations are a painful reminder that women, men and children need and deserve extensive legal protection. AB 568 does just that. It holds the system accountable while protecting pregnant women.

The bill has received support from conservatives and progressives, from individuals who themselves have been shackled and those who will never see the inside of a jail cell, yet now we are facing very serious opposition from a small but powerful group who stand to lose some autonomy in the workplace if this bill passes. Unless we show Governor Brown that California will not accept the blatant abuse of pregnant women, I’m afraid the bill will be vetoed.

It is absolutely urgent that we act now and make our voices and hearts heard. Please join us in letting Governor Brown know this is an issue that affects all of us. While many of us may never feel a shackle around our swollen ankles, or have a chain weighting on our pregnant belly, when “we” as a state treat mothers and babies this way, we all lose our dignity.

Tamaya Garcia lives in San Francisco and works at the Center for Young Women’s Development. She is a 2010 fellow of the Women’s Policy Institute.

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