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.
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Restraining a woman increases her risk of falling and causing injury to the fetus as well as heightens the risk of blood clots, which is one of the biggest causes of maternal death. Shackling can also delay access to treatment when there is a medical emergency. Medical professionals, as well as the American Medical Association, the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have stated that shackling pregnant women during labor and delivery is unsafe and dangerous to the health and lives of the mother and the baby.
The first time Reis ever experienced full restraints she was seven months pregnant. It was the day she was transferred from the Orange County Jail to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. “I sat there and argued with them for two hours,” she recalled. Finally, the guards handcuffed her but left off the waist chain, black box, and leg irons. The following day, she was taken to the prison’s doctor, who became alarmed at her high blood pressure, which had been left untreated at the jail, and ordered her to be rushed to the hospital. She was placed in handcuffs, leg irons, and a waist chain. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a condition that may lead to serious, if not fatal, complications for mother and baby, such as heightened risk of maternal seizures. Two weeks later, doctors decided to induce her labor. She was 32 weeks pregnant. (According to the New York State Department of Health, a full pregnancy should last 40 weeks.)
Reis’s son weighed three pounds, one ounce, when he was born. She was allowed to hold him for one minute before he was whisked away to the NICU. Before she was allowed to see him, guards placed her in handcuffs, leg irons, a waist chain, and a black box. After shuffling down the hallway to the NICU, guards removed the handcuffs, waist chain, and black box, but left on the leg irons. Reis, a first-time mother, was forced to hold and care for her son with her legs hobbled together.
Now a new bill seeks to prevent new mothers from having that experience. In January 2015, New York State legislators introduced a bill strengthening the 2009 law and extending the ban on shackling to all stages of pregnancy and up to eight weeks postpartum. The bill, which would affect approximately 1,700 pregnant women who pass through local jails and state prisons each year, passed overwhelmingly in the State Assembly and unanimously in the State Senate on June 23, 2015. Next, it must go to Governor Andrew Cuomo. When it does, he will have ten days to decide whether to sign it into law.
The bill’s widespread support should make it a good candidate for the governor’s signature. It even has the endorsement of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the state’s correctional officers, which issued a formal statement of support. “It does not serve law enforcement purposes to shackle inmates before, during or immediately after childbirth,” the union told the Albany Times Union in a statement. “While it is our duty to monitor all inmates at all times, there are better uses of limited resources than to continue a practice that applies to several dozen pregnant inmates in our prisons who do not pose an immediate threat to the safety and security of our officers and our facilities.”
But not every law enforcement agency is on board. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association has voiced its opposition to the bill. Peter Kehoe, the director of the association, told the Daily Star, a news site based in central New York, “There is nothing about a pregnant female—two months, or three months or six months pregnant—that makes her less dangerous than someone who is not pregnant.” They’ve also rallied local support; 10 counties have passed resolutions opposing the bill.
Tamar Kraft-Stolar, co-director of the Women and Justice Project and former director of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, rejects the notion that placing limits on shackling would threaten public safety. Indeed, statistics show that violence among women in the state’s prisons is low. In 2013, Bedford Hills, a maximum-security women’s prison with an average population of 784, recorded 12 assaults by prisoners on other prisoners and 16 assaults on staff. And the numbers are even lower in the state’s medium-security prisons. That same year, the Albion Correctional Facility, which holds 1,035 women, recorded four instances of assault between women and five assaults on staff; the Taconic Correctional Facility, which has an average population of 347 women, recorded one assault on a prisoner and none on staff. None of the prisons reported escapes or attempted escapes.
“It’s extremely rare for a pregnant woman to actually be a security threat,” said Kraft-Stolar, adding that jails and prisons send two guards, usually armed, when escorting an incarcerated person off the grounds. She also noted that the bill contains an exception that allows a woman to be handcuffed in the front if she’s considered a danger to herself or others. “It’s totally wrong to suggest that the bill would be a risk for public safety.”
Indeed, Reis and Degnitz show that safety can be achieved without shackling—or any type of restraints. During the three months Reis spent at the Orange County Jail, before being transferred to Bedford Hills, she was not restrained at all during medical visits—no leg irons, no waist chain, no handcuffs. She was simply brought from the jail to the doctor’s office.
While at the Albany County Jail, Degnitz visited various doctors twice a month who monitored both her pregnancy and her epilepsy. Each time, jail staff handcuffed her hands in front of her. But four months later, when she arrived at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which houses pregnant women sentenced to state prison, she was fully shackled each time she was taken off prison grounds. No consideration was given either to her pregnancy or to her risk of seizures.
While sheriffs have rallied support for their pro-shackling resolutions in some counties, others agree with Kraft-Stolar. In Delaware County, Middletown Supervisor Marjorie Miller came out against a similar resolution, calling the practice “clearly inhumane, anti-woman and anti-child,” and, with the support of several other members of the Board of Supervisors, tabled the resolution. In Otsego County, a similar resolution failed.
When Degnitz and Reis gave birth, neither woman knew that, by law, they were not supposed to be shackled. Neither did the other new mothers at the prison’s nursery program, which allows qualifying incarcerated mothers to spend up to 18 months with their newborns. When they learned about the 2009 law, they were outraged. Although both mothers were scheduled for release, they attempted to bring it to the attention of prison administrators. But, says Degnitz, staff dismissed their concerns. “They asked us, ‘Why do you care? You’re getting ready to leave. This shouldn’t even matter to you.’”
Even after walking out of the prison gates, the issue continues to matter to them. On October 5, three days after Degnitz was released from prison, she was one of five mothers who took the microphone at a rally outside Governor Cuomo’s office in New York City, recounting how it felt to be pregnant and in chains, and calling for Cuomo to sign the anti-shackling bill. Reis, who had been released less than one month earlier, also shared her story.
“Every day when I was at Bedford Hills, I was fully shackled and taken to the outside hospital,” Degnitz, who was on methadone maintenance, told the crowd. On several occasions, the hospital’s elevator was broken and so she walked up three flights of stairs with her legs hobbled together, her hands cuffed and secured to the waist chain. If she had fallen, she would not have been able to catch herself.
Reis described how she was handcuffed and shackled when she was taken to visit her newborn son. “They took off the handcuffs, but the leg irons stayed on,” she recalled. Her first days of motherhood were marred by the constant fear that she might trip and drop her baby. While nothing can change what happened to her, Reis reminded the audience that, unless stronger protections are enacted, “there are hundreds of other women who are going go to through this.”
Both mothers now live with their children at Hour Children, an organization that provides transitional housing and resources for formerly incarcerated mothers. If she could speak directly to Governor Cuomo, Degnitz said she would urge him to sign the anti-shackling bill, because “everyone has the right to have good healthcare and good prenatal care,” she said. “How can you provide good prenatal care and strap a chain around a woman’s waist and have her arms secured with a black box to that and take her to the doctor’s appointment? You cannot care about the baby’s health and fully restrain the pregnant mother.”
Kraft-Stolar, who helped pass the 2009 anti-shackling law, agrees. “It was inspiring to see the governor sign legislation furthering women’s equality a few weeks ago,” she said, referring to the several pieces of legislation the governor signed in October around to help further pay equity for women, provide greater protection for domestic violence survivors, and end pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. “We’re confident that the governor will not leave incarcerated pregnant women behind and will defend the dignity of all women, including that of pregnant women and incarcerated women.”