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Mass. bill to ban shackling pregnant inmates in labor clears first major step

Posted by Lara Salahi  February 19, 2014 10:50 AM

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**Update** On Thursday, Feb. 20, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced an end to shackling pregnant inmates in labor. The comment came less than a week after the bill was presented to the state Legislate, and is part of a program he proposed to reduce recidivism by prison inmates by 50 percent over five years.


Massachusetts is one step closer to banning the practice of handcuffing pregnant inmates while they're in labor. The legislation, known as the “anti-shackling bill,” would prohibit shackling pregnant women during and immediately after childbirth. After a decade of its existence, the bill was cleared Friday through the Massachusetts Legislature.

It’s a step in the right direction for the state, and it’s about time.

The argument here is less about a woman’s right to comfort than about medical safety. Labor is laborious. There are many natural techniques that help women to ease the pain and pressure of labor, and many of these require a free range of motion. So many come to mind -- the ability to walk around, stretch, sit on a yoga ball, soak in a tub. Many techniques that use motion have been shown to help the labor progress naturally. It’s necessary for every pregnant woman to receive proper medical attention during their labor, delivery and postpartum period.

According to a the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, "The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all oppose the use of shackles or restraints on incarcerated women in labor because it impedes the ability of physicians to assess, evaluate, and provide appropriate care to the mother and child.”  

Each Department of Corrections and jail currently has its own rules on whether to handcuff inmates in labor. In general, Massachusetts facilities where the practice is done have a less restrictive policy that may include not using a full shackle, or designating restricting women only certain times during labor or after birth.It's currently unpredictable and the legislation on the table now is designed to create a standard throughout the state.

The bill does make a few exceptions, saying that it applies, “unless they present a specific safety or flight risk.” I assume here that this caveat is made for a dangerous segment of inmates and that may try to escape after delivery. That's the main argument that proponents of shackling make. 

The bill has taken a decade to get to this point, and Friday’s presentation to the committee means it has now been assigned a bill number and sent to a House committee to review. Only 18 other states in the country have an anti-shackling law.

However, this bill is not only important because of it legislates banning restraints; it also sets up a treatment and care procedure for women in jail who are pregnant to help them have safe and healthy pregnancies.  This includes regular prenatal medical care, classes about nutrition, counseling, and postpartum screening for depression. For incarcerated women who struggle with addiction and mental health issues, these services can make a difference at least the wellbeing of their unborn child.

To read the bill, visit

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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