Will Governor Brown Keep Pregnant and Laboring Women in Chains?


As the clock tics, Governor Brown still has a stack of bills on his desk, all due to be acted upon, signed or vetoed, by this Sunday. He signed the bill to ban BPA from baby bottles yesterday, which is an important victory and we are thrilled.  Issues like this especially impact low-income communities, who can’t buy their way out of the problem by selecting the usually more expensive, less toxic version of things like bottles and boppies.

Today I am finding it hard to focus though…between the Steve Jobs tributes and an increasingly tense feeling that Governor Jerry Brown, former mayor of Oakland, is going to veto AB568, the bill that would largely end the shackling of pregnant women.

Schwartzenegger took that tack last year, and although I was devastated, I wasn’t shocked. This year, when the bill got to Gov. Brown’s desk with full support from the Senate and the Assembly, I thought–we got it! If I were more organized I might have started drafting the victory post then.

In the past week, the fabulous team of organizers working on the bill got some news–this bill, the bill to prevent the shackling of pregnant women in CA’s prisons, is the California State Sheriff’s Association’s top priority for a veto.

Huh? Yes. It means more for them to veto this bill than any other bill on the Governor’s desk right now. Those who follow politics in Sacramento know this does not bode well.

Let’s be clear and specific. There is already a law in CA that prevents women in labor from being shackled. That’s good. While enforcement is imperfect, we are glad to have that law. Not every state does, and recent news stories have brought attention to the fact that women held in detention on immigration related charges have been forced to give birth in shackles, in front of law enforcement.

However, even though we have laws in CA against women giving birth in shackles, pregnant women in prisons are still being shackled regularly as they move facilities or go to medical appointments.  As women advance through their pregnancies, walking with their hands, feet or bellies shackled becomes increasingly dangerous.

And here is what is so interesting about the Sheriff’s strenuous opposition. The bill does not say that no pregnant woman may ever be shackled. It does not say, as the Pennsylvania anti-shackling law does, that corrections officers need to document every time they use shackles on a pregnant woman.

What is actually says is that corrections officers should use the least restrictive restraints possible when transferring a pregnant woman.

So what the Sheriffs are standing up against is….their own ability to make a judgment call?

Perhaps they see this as some erosion of their power. Perhaps they think that this is some slippery slope, and the next thing, we will want nutritional food for pregnant women behind bars. And who knows what comes next?

Let’s be clear. This campaign is about making conditions better in a small but crucial way for pregnant women who are behind bars, but it is also about transforming our criminal justice system. We know the system is broken; the evidence is everywhere. Most of the groups involved in this campaign are working on multiple aspects of prison reform, including the death penalty, unfair sentencing laws, youth incarceration, substance use treatment and parental rights. Which are all essentially about the same thing: recognizing that the people who are locked up in our prisons and jails, for a whole range of reasons, are human. They came from our communities, and in most cases they will return to our communities. Awful situations from bad luck to bad timing to bad judgment got them in, but we have the audacity to believe that they should still be treated with dignity, and in almost every single case, given the chance to rehabilitate.

If this sounds to you like outrageous thinking, if this seems like we are going too far, take it from the man who willed into existence the machine you are reading this on, or at least the MacBook I am writing on:

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently…while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

So, we are making a simple ask. Sheriffs, please use your best judgment when transferring pregnant women in our prisons and jails. If her belly is big, if her mobility is impaired, if she is in for substance use or another nonviolent crime, as the vast majority are, maybe you could let her walk up the stairs onto the bus with her hands free and her feet unbound?

And Governor Brown, we are hoping you will stand with us–those of us who are crazy enough to think we can change the world.

It’s not too late to let Governor Brown know you support the bill.

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