Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Giving Birth in Shackles

Note from author: If anyone has knowledge of cases where this practice has taken place in Canada, women who want to speak out, news articles, or access to policy or practice documents where this practice is mandated could you please pass it along.  Though I read of the specific case below in the Toronto Star, the article itself seems to have disappeared and I can find no other references to this horror in Canada.
The shackling of women who are in labour and giving birth is positively medieval, and exceptionally cruel.  Only a monster could come up with such a practice.  Anyone who has given birth or supported a mother during this time in her life, knows that women in labour pose no security or escape risk.  It is for the benefit of both mom and baby that labouring mothers be able to move around, shift their weight, stand up, and walk around the birthing room if they feel the need to.  Restricting the womans movement can be dangerous for her and her baby.  Not to mention the egregious emotional harm being done to the woman - harm which is sure to last as long as her memories of the birth.

Though the below article is an American story, this is a practice which takes place in Canada as well.  It just happens to be much less reported on by mainstream or social justice media.  2 years ago in Toronto, a woman was shackled and cuffed while giving birth.  While she laboured cuffed to the bed and feet shackled together, the guard with the keys decided to go for a walk.  While he was gone the woman gave birth, the doctors were unable to find the guard to remove the shackles from her ankles and thus unable to put the woman's legs in stirups or to otherwise allow her to position herself to allow a normal birthing position.  It was difficult for the doctor to catch the baby and further endangered both lives.

Birthing Behind Bars: Fighting for Reproductive Justice for Women in Prison

This Mother's Day, take a few minutes to find out how you can help shape a society where no woman ever has to give birth while in shackles and chains.
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"I never thought of advocating outside of prison. I just wanted to have some semblance of a normal life once I was released," statedTina Reynolds, a mother and formerly incarcerated woman. Then she gave birth to her son while in prison for a parole violation:
"When I went into labor, my water broke. The van came to pick me up, I was shackled. Once I was in the van, I was handcuffed. I was taken to the hospital. The handcuffs were taken off, but the shackles weren’t. I walked to the wheelchair that they brought over to me and I sat in the wheelchair with shackles on me. They re-handcuffed me once I was in the wheelchair and took me up to the floor where women had their children. 
"When I got there, I was handcuffed with one hand. At the last minute, before I gave birth, I was unshackled so that my feet were free. Then after I gave birth to him, the shackles went back on and the handcuffs stayed on while I held my son on my chest."
That treatment, she recalled later, was "the most egregious, dehumanizing, oppressive practice that I ever experienced while in prison." Her experience is standard procedure for the hundreds of women who enter jail or prison while pregnant each year.
Upon her release, Reynolds started WORTH, an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated women based in New York City, to give currently and formerly incarcerated women both a voice and a support system.
In 2009, Reynolds and other WORTH members took up the challenge of fighting for legislation to end the practice of shackling women while in labor in New York State. At rallies and other public events, formerly incarcerated women spoke about being pregnant while in jail and prison, being handcuffed and shackled while in labor, and being separated from their newborn babies almost immediately. Their stories drew public attention to the issue and put human faces to the pending legislation. That year, New York became the seventh state to limit the shackling of incarcerated women during birth and delivery.
Recognizing the power of women's individual stories to enact change, WORTH is launching Birthing Behind Bars, a project that not only collects stories from women nationwide who have experienced pregnancy while incarcerated, but also strengthens their capacity and ability to share their stories. Too often, issues of reproductive justice are separated from issues of incarceration. Birthing Behind Bars ties women's individual experiences to the broader issues of reproductive justice (or injustice) behind prison walls and helps push a state-by-state analysis of the intersections of reproductive justice and incarceration.
This past March, Arizona became the sixteenth state to pass anti-shackling legislation. Thirty-four states still have no legal protection for women who give birth while behind bars. In Georgia and inMassachusetts, formerly and currently incarcerated women, their advocates, and reproductive rights activists are currently pushing for legislation to prohibit the practice of shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery. Stories of incarcerated women's pregnancies and birth experiences have proven to be powerful tools when educating the general public and confronting legislators to support such a bill.
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, a feminist, abolitionist and author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, issued a proclamation urging women to celebrate Mother's Day in the United States. For Howe, Mother's Day was not a holiday simply for breakfast in bed, cards and flowers—it was a call for women to shape their societies at the political level.
This Mother's Day, take a few minutes to reflect on the reality of women who give birth behind bars. Then take a few more minutes to find out how you can help shape a society where no woman ever has to give birth while in shackles and chains.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars - NYC. Her latest book, "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind" (PM Press, Fall 2012) addresses how social justice movements and communities can support the families in their midst.Tina Reynolds is co-founder and co-chair of Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH) and an adjunct lecturer at York College/CUNY. She is a co-editor of "Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States" (UC Press 2010).

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