Thursday, March 02, 2006

Because if there's ever a moment in a woman's life marked by superhuman strength and cat-like mobility, it's during labor

The NY Times reports today on the routine shackling of imprisoned women during labor, a truly appalling practice allowed in 23 states and explicitly prohibited in a mere five. The article is drawn in part from a new Amnesty USA report on the abuse of women in custody. Some gems from the study:
º Alabama stated that restraints depend on the security class of the woman, but that “often two extremities are restrained.”

º Arkansas reportedly has a policy stipulating that women with “lesser disciplinary records” will at times have one arm and one leg restrained by flexible nylon “soft restraints.” Arkansas did not provide information on how women with other disciplinary records are restrained.

º Louisiana allows restraints including leg irons to be utilized.

º Nevada reported that “normally only wrist restraints” are used.

º New Hampshire stated that one foot may be shackled to the bed during labor depending on security class of the woman in labor.

º Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Wisconsin allow restraints until the inmate is in “active labor” or arrives at the delivery room.

One of the broader consequences of this study should be to puncture the stupid myth that corrections policies for women have somehow become more uniformly "humane" over the past decade. While working on my PhD in Minnesota, I participated in a two-quarter sequence in which graduate students were sent out in pairs to conduct extended institutional analyses of health clinics, shopping malls, museums and prisons. One group reported back from the new women's facility at Shakopee, where the architecture and prison programming owed little to the "classical" stigmata of American corrections; the director of the facility was young and enlightened and spoke with great beneficence about the role of the prison in helping to expand the self-esteem and nurture the minds and souls of its charges.

We learn today from the Amnesty USA report that women at Shakopee -- as in dozens of other states -- may be restrained during labor if they are judged to pose an "escape" or "public safety" risk, or if they are believed capable of "physical abuse" of the corrections or medical staff, or if they present a threat to prison "property." I suppose the incarcerated women of Minnesota are meant be grateful that their state has rejected the antebellum nostalgia of states like Louisiana, where the disciplinary regime of the sugar plantations appears to be alive and well.