Organize, Resist, and End shackling of pregnant women

Beside raising my family and pursuing a career, changing policy is one of the greatest challenges I have pursued in the last twenty years as a formerly incarcerated mother.  Although it has been almost twenty years since I was shackled and handcuffed during transport to the hospital and during labor before giving birth to my son, Kai, the anti-shackling organizing efforts here in New York were by far the most rewarding for me. The reality of shackling incarcerated women during labor continues to baffle me.    Thankfully some headway has been made to end this oppressive and dehumanizing policy with approximately twenty states enforcing laws that prohibit some form of shackling of incarcerated pregnant women in the United States.  Yet, reproductive justice rights are practically nonexistent for incarcerated women in this country.  Ending shackling is the low hanging fruit policy effort to begin a conversation about reproductive justice rights for incarcerated women.

Women on the Rise Telling Herstory (WORTH) is an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated women, who seek to change public perception of and social policies affecting women who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.  WORTH meets once a month to discuss its current in and out of prison initiatives.

With WORTH as an organizing force, we worked collaboratively with other NY organizations to end the shackling policy. To set the stage for this effort, WORTH members decided to pair new members with older members to offer mutual support during our strategizing and planning stages.   As every sister has a voice, it is most important for us to bring sisters into the policy change efforts with patience and understanding. We began to think of how best to win the anti-shackling challenge.  We decided to gather stories, to reach out to all of our allies to join us in our efforts and to hold an organizing event in front of the Governor’s office. 

Our first organizing event went as planned: we were 100 or so strong during our first gathering, with women sharing their stories; people came out and supported us, and local politicians offered their support.  While we had hoped to get inquiries about shackling from passersby and even have them join us, everyone kept walking by seemingly unaffected by our efforts. No one stopped to question,  “why are there over a 100 people organizing in front of the Governor’s office with more than 50 placards with pictures of handcuffs and statements like ‘cuffs off during birth’”.  We stayed until our time was up, but we felt really proud of ourselves, although we had not received the response we had hoped to receive.  We went back to the meeting table to debrief, and we began our discussion of what worked and what could be improved.  This debriefing session led us to the conclusion that we needed to show people what shackling looked like. We needed to give visuals!  We planned another rally to be held two weeks later.  While the second rally was essentially identical to the earlier one, our allies provided a moving visual of shackling during pregnancy: our allies dressed as pregnant women with pillows under their t-shirts and handcuffs on their wrists.  We all agreed this got our message across.  People passing by joined us and asked questions.  Many of them shared that they did not know this was happening to women in prison.  It was a win!  The Governor came through the crowd and said he would sign the bill!

Tina Reynolds


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