Becoming important

Monday, October 10, 2011

By Lisa Russ, Strong Families

Although the Governor did not veto the anti-shackling bill (AB568) until yesterday, the writing was on the wall.  When we found out that the Sheriffs were taking strong opposition, we knew that was likely the kiss of death.

I held onto a shred of hope though. Our governor is Jerry Brown...that gave me something to cling to.  Plus, the bill was really intended to close gaps in existing legislation, and ensure that when it comes to pregnant women, correctional officers would use the least restrictive restraints possible.  I mean, it might not be apple pie and baseball, but it was pretty straight forward.
CYWD staff made a statement when they brought your names to Sacramento

In the middle of last week, I lost faith.  The Governor's office put out a press release celebrating four important bills for California moms!  Hoping against hope, I scanned the list.  AB568 was not there.  It was important stuff that I support and you probably do too, like protecting health insurance for pregnant women, and something to encourage breast feeding in maternity wards.  Good stuff.

And yet, for me, what was left off was loudest of all.  We weren't even vetoed on the same day the Governor signed those Mom Bills.  Pregnant women who are incarcerated do not count as California moms!  Their rights are considered favors that we are doing for them.  The fact that they struggle with drugs, with money, with violence, is enough for us to put them away, both behind bars and into another category: prisoners.
In my heart of hearts, I am sad about this bill getting vetoed not just because we lost an arm-wrestle with the Sheriffs.  I am sad because I saw how easily incarcerated moms were cast-off in the political game.  I am sad that even a liberal governor like Jerry Brown did not see this as an important place to spend any political capital with the Sheriffs.

This isn't the work we do every day at Strong Families, but we are proud to have members who do.  The Center for Young Women's Development and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children not only fought this particular fight, but are in these trenches every day, every month, and every year, working on policy and regulations at our jails and prisons, and also with and for folks in the system. So it may be my distance from this work that let me see and feel what a lonely place it can be to advocate for people on the inside, especially incarcerated pregnant women.

That's also where we will draw our strength to go forward.  Even as families all around us face extremely hard times, so many of you chose to stand with us on this.  People who know people on the inside and those who don't looked up from their own busy lives for a few minutes to draw the connection and to stand together.   

You all helped us generate thousands of messages to the Governor.  So many friends and friends of friends shared our posts and petitions on Facebook, we were able to reach people who had never heard of any of us before.  We could really feel the power behind your hopes and dreams, and could see where they met ours.

A veto on a technicality doesn't help women behind bars today. But the growing belief of people all over California and the US that our rights don't end when we are incarcerated, that incarcerated people including pregnant women deserve to be treated with dignity, that does help. It helps the men and women on the inside, and their families in our communities stand taller.  It helps advocates and organizers go forward, it helps the people who provide services including medical services to pregnant women in our prisons feel connected, and it helps the Governor and the Sheriffs know that we don't stand alone.

Thanks to all you did, from posting, sharing, to cheering us on.  I am looking forward to next year, hoping that when we see important bills passed for California moms, we will see ourselves on that list.


  1. I am so sorry to hear that the bill was vetoed. I know how important passing this bill was, not only to the spirit of our movement for equity and fairness for all families, but for the spirit of those that have worked so hard for so long to make this happen. The beauty of it all is, Dr. King spoke what many of us know, that the arc bends toward justice. Building movements and winning change is a marathon, not a sprint. While this bill was vetoed, I hope you remember that going up against the prison lobby in these days of incarcerate and prosper, is an act of bravery, of courage. For sisters who are treated like animals to demand something as humane as to give birth without shackles, means at minimum our sisters in prison recognize their own humanity, and understand that they deserve better. More importantly, we are all willing to keep fighting, from inside and out.

    In the context of such a brutal system, this campaign is a light in dark places. Congratulations for mobilizing on behalf of and in partnership with such an important and often invisible constituency.

  2. In his veto statement, he said that the language leaves the prison system open to lawsuits because it's not clear enough when you can restrain/shackle a pregnant woman in prison.

    It's in the 1st paragraph of the Legislative Counsel summary: the bill requires them to develop the standards. So it'd be their own fault if the standards were vague.

    Sounds like some group doesn't want to be embarrassed. *cough cough* Prison lobby. I wonder why would the State Board of Corrections be afraid of lawsuits?

    And it sounds like some group isn't willing to – or is to lazy to – play with other. The bill requires the Corrections Standards Authority and the State Board of Corrections (what a gigantic misnomer), to consult with physicians, psychiatrists, public health officials, lobbyists & activists, and even the Sheriff's Association!

    This should have been a no-brainer.