Shackled: Women Behind Bars Deliver in Chains

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You need not go overseas to find violations of women's rights and health care rights, say opponents of restraining female prisoners while they give birth.

In 40 states, non-violent women prisoners are shackled by their feet, hands and sometimes bellies during labor and delivery. These American moms-to-be are giving birth in leg irons, handcuffs or waist chains in state prisons and county jails, in federal immigration detention centers and inside juvenile detention facilities.

And the humiliating journey often starts as soon as an inmate or prisoner tells guards that she's going into labor, a statement that is often met with disbelief and distrust.

Kimberly Mays of Tacoma, Wash., still bristles when she talks about having her ninth baby while serving a sentence for drug possession and intent to distribute. Now 47, Mays was well into a high-risk pregnancy when she went into labor on Aug. 2, 2000, in the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

After an initial delay, she was handcuffed to a gurney for the ambulance ride to the hospital in Tacoma. Once inside, guards chained her hand to a wheelchair as she yelled for relief from the worsening pain of contractions.

An annoyed nurse "put one hand over my mouth and put the other hand on top of that like you're doing CPR," Mays said. The guards only glared -- as if Mays was "some animal," she recalled.

"I have never been so humiliated in my life. I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like something was dirty about me," she said in an interview Wednesday. The stress and helplessness made her block out the birth; she recalled having one leg chained to the bed after delivering a son, and having to ask a guard to free her every time she needed the bathroom.

"There are things I lost that I'll never get back. I was robbed of the memory of giving birth to a life."

This year, she shared her story during testimony in favor of a Washington State law, signed in March by Gov. Christine Gregoire, which bans the shackling of pregnant women during labor or post-partum recovery. Recounting her ordeal brings out old anger in Mays.

"That shouldn't have happened," she said. "The person I am now, I'm worth dignity and respect. My behavior that got me into prison should not have dictated my worth as a mother in labor."

Mays, a repeat felon who began turning her life around in 2004, eventually earned associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees and found work with the King County Juvenile Court's Parent-to-Parent program, helping other offenders keep their children -- an ironic twist, she said, given that she lost parental rights for nine of her 10 children. However, she's raising her youngest daughter and is back in touch with eight of her other sons and daughters.

States Taking Stand Against Shackling Women in Labor

Stories like Mays' have moved lawmakers in several states to restrict or ban shackling. California passed an anti-shackling law in 2005, followed by Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Vermont. The Texas measure had the backing of Democrats and Republicans, reproductive health organizations and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This year, Colorado, West Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania passed anti-shackling measures. The momentum continues on other fronts.

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