Massachusetts has faced a rude awakening in recent weeks about rules and procedures that should have been updated long ago, from its voyeurism laws to its methods of subduing mental patients in state custody. Here’s another one: In Massachusetts prisons, some pregnant inmates are handcuffed to the side of a hospital bed while in labor. Others are required to wear shackles to medical appointments, interfering with physicians’ efforts to evaluate them.
Such measures are not only dehumanizing but unnecessary for public safety, the experience of other states indicates. That’s why a growing chorus of advocacy groups has called for the passage of an anti-shackling bill, sponsored by state Senator Karen Spilka and state Representative Kay Kahn. The bill was released late last year from the Joint Committee on Public Safety and is now sitting in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Governor Patrick recently announced his support for the measure, urging the Commonwealth to join 18 other states that prohibit the practice. None has reported any public-safety problems after removing the shackles from pregnant inmates. Most US law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Marshals Service, have adopted policies against the practice. Yet in the Massachusetts penal system, there is an assortment of ad-hoc policies, some of which require the shackling of women during and immediately after labor.
The anti-shackling measure is not a new concept on Beacon Hill, having been introduced over 10 years ago. Yet it has never been taken seriously enough to receive a vote. Is the Legislature waiting for a tragic incident involving an imprisoned mother-to-be to motivate it to end this inhumane practice? Let’s hope not.