UPDATE: By a vote of 48-16, the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed H 5257, echoing passage of the same bill by the Senate several weeks ago. The bill should end up on Governor Lincoln Chaffee’s desk within a few weeks. Notable Nays (despite support for the bill by Dept. Of Corrections) were mothers Charlene Lima, Karen MacBeth, and Doreen Costa- the latter of which was a co-sponsor of the bill. Another Nay vote also came from John Edwards, who runs a drug rehabilitation center and sponsored the Marijuana Decriminalization bill. Considering Edwards also voted Nay on the eventual law to free probationers who have their new charges dismissed, he is far from a steady vote on civil rights and social justice issues.
ORIGINAL POST: Up until a year or two ago, most people in the country would never have guessed that a pregnant woman could be shackled during birth, during post-partum, or during transportation. They likely never even considered it, like many issues behind the walls, as mainstream media paints a picture of Good Guys and Bad Guys. But with the help of the Rebecca Project, ACLU, and self-empowered activists such as Women On the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), people are finally learning that children are being born (figuratively and literally) in chains.
Several weeks ago, Idaho joined the ranks of ten states that have passed liberating legislation protecting the health of the incarcerated mothers. Although vehemently opposed last year by the Idaho Department of Corrections, the coalition this year included the Idaho Sheriffs Association, Planned Parenthood, and Right to Life.
A recent federal court decision in Tennessee clearly indicated that shackling a woman during childbirth is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” This should send a warning shot over the bow of every legislature with pending reforms, such as California, where a bill last year was vetoed by by Schwarzenegger on his way back to Hollywood. Delaware and Virginia, which recently voted down such a measure, are likely to find themselves in court unless they ultimately confront the issue.
In Rhode Island, the Healthy Pregnancies Act recently passed the full Senate with no opposition, and awaits a vote by the full House. This bill however, would be strengthened if it also addressed the numerous court visits that a new prisoner must deal with. Committee hearings were brought home by the presence of affected people, such as members of Direct Action for Rights & Equality who, like WORTH, are able to tell their personal stories of being incarcerated. Having recently elected Governor Lincoln Chaffee, considered to be socially moderate, he is expected to sign the bill… or live with the potential wrath of his wife: a doctor and mother herself.
Many jurisdictions are dealing with the transport of pregnant women to medical appointments, with bills also pending in Florida and Hawaii (and others). They overlook, however, that in some circumstances a recently arrested prisoner can be going weekly to court, while only monthly to medical visits. Such an inclusion however, would reform both the policies of DOC (conducting medical transport) and Sheriffs (court transport).
On May 13th, Nevada’s legislature sent a unanimously supported bill to Gov. Brian Sandoval. Known more as a testing ground for atomic weapons and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (home of Senator Harry Reid), Nevada is expected to be the 12th state to move in this direction of protecting prisoners’ health. The most promising element of the Nevada situation is that the issue surfaced in conjunction with a broader report about the inadequate and unsanitary medical and food for Nevada prisoners. States such as Nevada, who do not hesitate to declare ownership of people, should reconsider the 8th Amendment when hesitating to provide for their health and safety. Just like buying a Mercedes: if you can’t afford the upkeep, don’t take on the payments.
This issue represents the many intersectional points between prisons and other issues. The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, and the National Women’s Law Center produced “Mothering Behind Bars” and graded each of the 50 states. It is only a matter of time before the AARP launches something like “One Million Seniors For Dignity,” addressing the dilemma of aging and dying prisoners. Or might we see “Veterans Against the PIC” reflecting that those who served are one of the most at-risk groups for incarceration, and have more Iraq/Afghanistan vets in prison than the peak of the Vietnam era. As the tentacles of an incarceration nation begin to touch all parts of society, it logically flows that all segments of our culture will begin to push back in full force and effect.