Crystal Degnitz’s daughter and Stephanie Reis’s son are three days apart. Both were born in August 2014 at the Westchester Medical Center, where their mothers shared a room. They’ve been in each other’s lives ever since.
This could be a story of any two new mothers meeting with one startling difference: both Degnitz and Reis were prisoners of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).
Both women went to prenatal visits in handcuffs, leg irons and a chain around their waist. Degnitz vividly remembers her fear of tripping, particularly in her third trimester. “There’s not much chain between the leg irons,” she explained. And after their babies were born, both women were again clapped in handcuffs, leg irons, and waist chains. Reis recalled being fully shackled as she was escorted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to visit her son. Although the handcuffs and waist chain were removed inside the unit, she still remembers the embarrassment of walking down the hall in full restraints.
Both mothers are now out of prison, but neither has forgotten the dehumanizing feeling of being restrained. Now both have joined the fight to ensure that no other mother has that experience ever again.
Whenever an incarcerated person is taken outside the jail or prison, whether for court or for medical treatment in an outside hospital, she is placed in handcuffs, leg irons, a waist chain, and a black box which secures her hands to the waist chain—a practice commonly known as “shackling.” Twenty-two states and Washington, DC, have laws prohibiting the use of shackles on pregnant women during childbirth; of these, very few extend the ban throughout pregnancy. Twenty-eight states have no laws restricting shackling.
In 2009, New York State passed a law prohibiting the use of handcuffs, chains, and ankle cuffs on pregnant women during labor, delivery, and post-delivery recovery. But, as Degnitz and Reis can attest, policies on paper are not necessarily followed in practice. And they are not the only pregnant women shackled in violation of the law; the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog group, interviewed 27 women who gave birth after the state’s 2009 anti-shackling law went into effect. Nearly half had been shackled while being transported to the hospital to give birth; nearly all had been shackled at some point during their pregnancy. The Correctional Association and the Women and Justice Project are in the process of examining and analyzing shackling policies on the county level. Thus far, the majority of counties that responded to information requests do not have written policies that comply with the 2009 law.