‘I never want anyone else to go through what I did’

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Artistic photo rendering exploring freedom and its fragility. (Flickr/Norma Desmond)

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, six women sat in a windowless auditorium to share their stories. Each woman had spent time in the New York State prison system within the past five years. But even though all had left the prison walls behind them, they weren’t through with prison. No one could forget the inhumane medical treatment and reproductive health care they had experienced. Some had been pregnant while behind bars. Others had not, but had experienced other aspects of the prison’s inadequate and dehumanizing medical care. All were determined not to let it continue unchallenged.

So they spent the afternoon away from their children and families to share some part of their experience to let people know that, despite the legislation on the books, prisons remain sites of reproductive injustice. The most visible and visually horrifying of these practices is shackling. Shackling refers to the way in which a person is restrained any time they leave the prison — whether to go to court or to an outside medical facility. The person is not only handcuffed, but also chained. A chain links her wrists to a chain wrapped around her belly. Attached to that chain is another that attaches to shackles around her feet. A device known as the black box is attached to her handcuffed wrists, keeping them close to her belly and preventing her from being able to catch herself if she trips and falls.

In 2009, after years of organizing by advocates, including formerly incarcerated women, New York State passed legislation restricting the shackling of pregnant women during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. But the law is not always followed, as Ursulina and 22 other women have learned. Ursulina was three months pregnant when she arrived in 2012 at Bedford Hills — New York’s maximum-security prison for women. It was three years after anti-shackling legislation was passed and supposedly implemented. But when she went into labor, Ursulina was shackled before being taken to the hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, the doctor told her that she was not dilated enough and that she should go home. “I’m not going home,” she told him. “I’m going back to prison.” She was sent back, in shackles and chains.

The second time the ambulance arrived, the EMTs refused to transport her if she was shackled, forcing staff to keep the chains off her. “Not all women are so lucky,” Ursulina reflected, whose daughter turned two this past August. “She’s a bundle of joy and a pain in my butt,” she said, holding up the girl’s picture. But the memory of her birth has stayed with Ursulina, driving her to share her story in an effort to illustrate the inhumanity of prison practices and the injustices of reproductive health care.

Not everyone speaking had as happy an ending. While pregnant and in jail, Bridgette Gibbs suffered from an infection that remained untreated. The infection caused her to go into premature labor. “I had to convince the CO [correctional officer] that I was actually in labor,” she recounted. “That took a little bit of time.” By the time the officer was convinced, Gibbs was bleeding. Nonetheless, she was shackled and cuffed on the way to the hospital. Even at the hospital, despite the doctor’s insistence, guards removed only the black box, leaving Gibbs to give birth in shackles. Her baby died.

The Saturday afternoon panel discussions were organized by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, a prison monitoring organization that is allowed to visit prisons and directly inspect conditions inside. But Saturday was not the first — or only — time that formerly incarcerated women have spoken out and organized around reproductive injustices behind prison walls. As I mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated women were pivotal in helping pass the 2009 anti-shackling legislation in New York. Working with the Women in Prison Project and other advocates, formerly incarcerated women were the human faces and voices illustrating the inhumane practice and the urgent need for protective legislation.

“We did a lot of organizing, we did a lot of collecting stories, we did a lot of speaking to the media,” recalled Tina Reynolds, the director of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory, a New York City-based organization of formerly incarcerated women. Although Reynolds had given birth while shackled nearly 15 years earlier and had been out of prison for many years, when I spoke with her in 2011 she was still outraged that she — or any woman — ever had to give birth under these conditions.

New York is not the only state where formerly incarcerated women have been active in the fight to pass legislation limiting, if not banning, the practice of chaining and shackling women while they are in labor, childbirth and delivery.

Kimberly Mays is now the executive director of Parent to Parent, an organization in Washington State that assists parents in child welfare cases. But, once upon a time, Mays was in and out of prison, struggling with addiction. She gave birth to her ninth child, a baby boy, while at the Kings County Jail in Seattle. The experience, she remembered, was demoralizing and demeaning.

Forty-five minutes after she told jail staff that she was in labor, she was shackled and laid in the gurney of an ambulance. Two male guards accompanied her — one sitting in the front with the driver, the other in the back of the ambulance as the EMTs undressed and began examining Mays. “Why didn’t they send a female guard?” Mays recalled thinking.

At the hospital, she was undressed and placed on the delivery table with her legs in stirrups. The male guard was in the room the entire time. She was also handcuffed the entire time. “They kept switching where the handcuffs would go,” she remembered, in order to accommodate whatever position that would move her labor along. Even after her baby was born, she was handcuffed at all times. She had to ask to get the cuffs taken off to go to the bathroom. When the guard was out of the room, she couldn’t leave the bed.

Once out of prison, Mays put those memories behind her and rebuilt her life. But years later, that experience came back. Reproductive justice advocates were pushing for legislation that would stop the use of shackling during childbirth throughout Washington. As part of the strategy, they were asking formerly incarcerated women to share their birthing stories before legislators. Originally, Mays decided not to testify in person before the legislators. Instead, she offered to write her experience to be shared as written testimony.

“I had put that story off to the side for a long time,” Mays recalled. “But as I wrote it, I got outraged that this had happened to me. The memories came flooding in and I felt that if there’s something I can do to help this not happen to someone else in my state [I would do it.]. And so I helped champion that bill with Sara Ainsworth [an attorney for reproductive justice organization Legal Voice] and other people who had similar experiences of being incarcerated and in labor. We collaborated together to challenge this practice. It was approved and signed into law in 2010.”

Women still behind bars have also contributed to the fight for reproductive justice. In New York, women like Ursulina have shared their stories of pregnancy while imprisoned, alerting outside advocates that, despite the law, they continue to be chained and shackled. They share their stories, often reliving these traumatic experiences, at public forums to put human faces on the policies and practices that are allowed to continue behind the invisibility of prison walls. They sit in meetings and learn how to advocate for stronger protections, then meet with legislators and do just that.

In a Massachusetts jail, women worked with outside advocates around passing anti-shackling legislation in their state. Women who were pregnant or who had given birth behind bars read the bill and urged lawmakers to include a provision for transporting women in labor in a car with seat belts rather than a paddy wagon. They also recommended that the bill put an end to the practice of placing postpartum women in solitary confinement when they returned from the hospital. Their recommendations were taken seriously and incorporated into the bill that ultimately passed in the Senate. This past May, Massachusetts became the 21st state to pass a law prohibiting shackling, a law which includes provisions recommended by women who have been directly affected by the issue.

“The best way to stop the shackling of pregnant women is to stop incarcerating pregnant women,” said Jaya Vasandani, the associate director of the Women in Prison Project. But, understanding that that change is not coming about anytime soon, the group is looking for ways to reduce reproductive injustices for women currently pregnant and behind bars.

Bridgette Gibbs, Ursulina and the other women who shared their stories that afternoon have joined the Coalition for Women Prisoners, a statewide alliance of organizations — including the Correctional Association — and individuals challenging various aspects of women’s incarceration. They’re planning to fight for stronger enforcement of the 2009 legislation and, given that the legislation only covers labor, delivery and postpartum recovery, push for expanded protection during other stages of pregnancy. Being part of a movement to change reproductive injustices doesn’t erase these women’s experiences. But it does enable them to see that they do not have to accept these inhumane policies.

“Now I got a voice,” said Bridgette Gibbs.

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