On May 20, 2009, the New York State legislature passed a bill that outlaws shackling of pregnant inmates in labor. Democrats and Republicans joined together in favor of the law, which prohibits the use of handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and belly chains during an inmate's travel to the hospital to give birth, while at the hospital, and on the way back from the hospital. But five years later, as I reported this summer in an Investigative Fund story for the New York Times, New York inmates continue to recount wearing restraints while in labor.
On September 20 the Correctional Association of New York's Women in Prison Project (WIPP) held an event to address these violations. The Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art hosted the gathering called “Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice.” The WIPP is in the final stages of a five-year study on reproductive healthcare in New York prisons, which they expect to publish in early December.
“In prison culture there's this assumption that women are con artists, that they're trying to pull one over on you,” said Jaya Vasandani, the associate director of the WIPP. “Women's own perceptions of their bodies are often dismissed.”
“Today is about identifying the problems and hearing what the solutions are,” said WIPP director Tamar Kraft-Stolar. “One of the most important things we can do is be guided by the expertise of the women who have lived this.”
A panel of three women who gave birth in New York prisons spoke on stage, moderated by Queens College associate professor of anthropology Dana-Ain Davis.
Ursulina Miranda of the Bronx told of not getting enough food while she was pregnant at Bedford Hills prison. “The extra pregnancy snack you get,” she said, “is warm milk, a bologna sandwich, and a small piece of fruit.”
Miranda said corrections officers made her wear handcuffs for the forty-minute ride to the hospital while she was in labor. She shared the story of her delivery. “The officer has to be in your room even as your child is coming out of your body,” she said. “If we want to breastfeed, the officer will not leave the room. You have no right over your own body.”
Another former Bedford Hills inmate Maria Caraballo, of Queens, told of how she and her fellow inmates were made to buff prison floors just a few days after delivery, even by c-section. “Some women had their staples burst open,” she said. “You're always walking on eggshells, and you're afraid, so you do what they tell you to do.”
Caraballo was one of the few dozen women permitted to keep their babies in prison with them at the Bedford Hills Prison Nursery. But she felt far from lucky in the situation. She recounted living in fear of mothering “wrong” and getting punished, and when she was caught falling asleep in bed with her baby — the infants have to sleep separately — she and her baby were permanently removed from the program.
“All of this comes back to body control,” she said, “who is deemed worthy of controlling their body.”
The WIPP announced they're preparing a bill for the 2015 New York Legislative session that will beef up enforcement of the 2009 anti-shackling law. The bill will include requirements to notify incarcerated women of their rights in regards to shackling; to post this information in public areas throughout correctional facilities; to train corrections staff, hospital staff, and EMTs about the law; and to publicly report incidences when restraints were used on pregnant women.
The bill would take the 2009 law further by banning the use of restraints on women through all stages of pregnancy.