Following the lead of a dozen other states, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has signed into law a bill that sharply restricts the harmful practice of shackling pregnant prisoners. As we have learned from the stories of women across the country, this legislation is critical to protecting mothers and babies. In Rhode Island, legislators heard from one former inmate who described her fears for her pregnancy every time she was transported in a prison van. Not only was she shackled, the van had no seat belts, and she was constantly jostled around with no way to protect herself from falling on her abdomen.
Now, with the support of organizations like the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, the Rhode Island Medical Society, Rhode Island NOW, and other local advocacy groups, we are proud to say that the ACLU of Rhode Island lobbied successfully to protect the rights of pregnant women in our jails and prisons.
Not surprisingly, when the bill was introduced, the Department of Corrections (DOC) raised some initial security concerns over our proposed restrictions on shackling. However, even before drafting the legislation, the ACLU of Rhode Island took legal action against the state in order to obtain public records they were withholding. These records revealed inconsistencies in the Department of Corrections’ own policies regarding treatment of pregnant prisoners. With strong prodding from the bill’s sponsors, our data from those records helped us convince the DOC to sit at the table and work with us to identify practices that would both respect the rights of pregnant women and abate any security concerns.
We succeeded in passing a law that is one of the strongest on the books. It not only protects against shackling pregnant women during transportation to the hospital, and labor, delivery and post-partum recovery (as do many other states), it also includes restrictions on the use of restraints starting from the second trimester of pregnancy. In addition, we made sure the law required clear notification to inmates of their rights, documentation of any use of shackles during pregnancy and — a first-of-its-kind among anti-shackling statutes — a provision allowing women to file a lawsuit if they are shackled in violation of the law.
We are proud of our new law and of all the bills springing up across the country to help pregnant prisoners retain their dignity. As is true in many other states, this has been a particularly gloomy legislative session, so we are especially thrilled that Rhode Island came out of its session with a major pro-active civil liberties victory to point to.