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Kentucky Started a National Movement to Treat Female Prisoners Better, but More Work is Needed

By Courtney Spencer


On May 14th of this year South Carolina was the 43rd state to pass a ban on shackling of pregnant women in prison with House Bill 3967. Unfortunately, the coverage over the passing of this bill was swept under the rug as COVID-19 encompassed the news and every aspect of Americans lives earlier in the year. However, COVID-19 has shed light on the health and safety conditions of prisons all over the United States leading to new reforms to the prison system, including more states considering placing bans on the shackling of pregnant women in prisons.


In 2006 The New York Times published an article about pregnant women in prisons describing the horrifying story of Shawanna Nelson who was shackled to her hospital bed while giving birth for more than 12 hours. In July of 2017, Justice Action Network held it's groundbreaking "Women Unshackled" event in Washington, D.C. focused on the unique plight of incarcerated women. Kentucky then became there first state to take up the issue legislatively, with the passage of the Pegasus Institute-backed Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Then in December of 2018 the First Step Act was signed into law, a key component of which was the banning of the shackling pregnant women in all federal prisons.


In 2017, 1,397 women were pregnant in United States Prisons. Three percent of women held in federal prisons were pregnant women, four percent held in state prisons were pregnant women and five percent of people held in local jails were pregnant women. States often operate as laboratories of democracy when it comes to policy and while many states passed acts of their own that are in line with the First Step Act, they only apply to their state.


Before these changes, pregnant inmates could be placed in handcuffs, ankle chains, or shackles while being transported to medical facilities or while giving birth. In 2000, Pamela Winn was placed in a federal prison in Georgia, not knowing that she was 6 weeks pregnant at the time. While in shackles from her wrists to her ankles and around her pregnant belly, she fell trying to climb into the vehicle that was transporting her to a nearby facility. After her fall she began to bleed and about 14 weeks later she had a miscarriage and lost her baby. The First Step Act was a huge step in assessing the needs and risk of pregnant inmates and with the banning of shackling, women like Pamela Winn will be less at risk for miscarriages and fatalities when giving birth.


Many states have taken great strides to improve the prison system for not only pregnant women but women in general. In March of 2018 Senate Bill 133 was passed in Kentucky making it the first state to pass a Women’s Dignity Act. Kentucky adopted new rules for pregnant inmates that banned the use of shackling when being transported to and from a medical facility, while giving birth, and during postpartum recovery. It also mandated that women who are housed in any jail, penitentiary, state prison, residential center or reentry center are only allowed to be restrained using handcuffs in front of their body.


Since Kentucky enacted the Woman’s Dignity Act, 10 states have followed in its footstep, 4 states are in the progress of passing a dignity act, and one state is currently introducing a dignity act.


Image via Dream Corps


With COVID-19 exposing the overpopulation of our current prisons, health and safety issues have been brought to the public’s attention more and more. Only 11 states have adopted women dignity acts not only banning the use of shackles but providing new minimum standards to state prisons that align with the First Step Act, with Georgia being the most recent state to pass a dignity act with House Bill 345.


It would be wise for the other thirty-nine states to adopt women dignity acts and improve the prison system to ensure the health and safety of pregnant inmates are a top priority. While the United States still has a long way to go in banning the practice of shackling pregnant inmates entirely, the First Step Act and the movements by states to enact Women’s Dignity Acts have proven to be leaps, not just steps, in the right direction.


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