Prisoners' Rights Project Plays Crucial Advocacy Role in Ending Shackling of Pregnant Women Prisoners During Birth

Following almost 30 years of litigation by The Legal Aid Society and substantial efforts by Legal Aid and our coalition partners, the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners delivering their babies will finally end in New York State. On August 18, 2009, Governor David Paterson announced he will sign landmark legislation ending this practice.

In 1981, Dori Lewis and Jonathan Chasan of the Prisoners’ Rights Project brought Reynolds v. Ward, 81 Civ. 107 (S.D.N.Y). At that time all prisoners confined in civilian medical wards in the municipal hospitals were chained to their beds, despite being guarded by at least one armed correction officer at all times. These prisoners were shackled regardless of the severity of their medical condition or the minor nature of their criminal offense. We met prisoners dying of AIDS who were charged with petit larceny who were shackled to their beds. We also met women admitted to the hospital for delivery who were shackled during labor.

In 1990, The Legal Aid Society entered into a Consent Judgment with the City that severely limited this horrific practice. It required the City never to shackle certain categories of inmates, including women admitted to the municipal hospitals for delivery.

For years this Consent Judgment made a tremendous difference in the lives of our clients, so that women prisoners admitted for delivery were never shackled during labor. In the past few years, however, the City started again to shackle virtually everyone. Women prisoners were routinely shackled in the recovery room immediately after giving birth, even if they had a caesarian section or an episiotomy. Women were brought to the hospital in restraints, and in some cases the shackles were removed only after an epidural was given.

The situation was worse around New York State, where there were no protections for pregnant women giving birth. As a result, along with many other advocates, we advocated to stop this inhumane practice of shackling women prisoners admitted for delivery. After years of efforts by us and others, this practice will finally end.

But this is not the end of the story. Because so many of our clients are now needlessly shackled while in custody, we challenged the City to comply again with Reynolds. The City’s response has been to move to terminate the Consent Judgment in Reynolds so that even its limited protections would end. We are vigorously fighting this termination motion so that no prisoner will again be needlessly shackled and no person’s medical condition will again be jeopardized by being chained to a bed.

We rejoice that finally no women prisoner admitted for delivery will again be shackled in New York State. Our work, however, is not done.