When Debra* went into labor last year, officers at Dwight Correctional Center placed a heavy chain-belt around her pregnant waist, handcuffed her to it, and put leg irons on her ankles before taking her to the hospital. She was afraid she would fall and hurt the baby, and she was mortified to be paraded past hospital staff and patients who pointed at her. The joyful, sacred experience of giving birth was instead demoralizing, humiliating, and frightening.
What made Debra so dangerous that corrections officials thought she would escape or harm someone while on her way to the hospital to give birth? She has never been charged with a violent offense; her convictions are for retail theft and return of merchandise, and she was classified as minimum security. Debra is part of a growing group of women who have been shackled in violation of Illinois law, with no apparent rationale.
An amended version of HB 1958, applying to Cook County only, passed the Illinois House last May and we will work to pass it in the Senate during the upcoming veto session that begins October 25. We hope to expand the protection against shackling pregnant women statewide next term.State Representative Robyn Gabel (D-18th) introduced House Bill 1958 in February to address this violation of Illinois law, the U.S. Constitution and human rights. The bill strengthens the 1999 statute that CLAIM championed, which made Illinois the first state in the nation to ban restraints during labor. It extends the protection against restraints throughout pregnancy, recognizing the risk of pregnant women falling due to the shift in their center of gravity. It defines labor and other key terms. It clarifies the provision that officers may not be in the delivery room, but must be posted outside except for periodic security checks or upon request of medical staff. It provides sensible exceptions for risk of harm or escape, and requires an annual report to create transparency and accountability. It allows therapeutic restraints to be applied by medical staff, not correctional officers, when medically necessary. Thirty-three organizations stood with CLAIM in support of HB 1958 when the bill was heard in the House Human Services committee. The Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Sheriffs Association, however, mounted an aggressive, intensive campaign against the bill. They alleged that equipment that can be used as a weapon is left in women’s hospital rooms. The bill calls for a security check before the mother enters the hospital room, and both medical staff and correctional staff would have to be incompetent or corrupt to leave such equipment in the room, but several legislators found this argument persuasive. Corrections officials said officers need to be in the hospital room because family members are allowed to be present during labor; this is completely untrue. The Sheriffs Association told legislators that reporting requirements were unduly burdensome, requiring reports of each instance of handcuffing during pregnancy. In fact reports were required only for full security restraints used in exceptional circumstances. On the day before the deadline for passage of House bills, Representative Roger Eddy (R-109th) placed fiscal note and judicial note requests on the bill, hostile maneuvering meant to delay action on a bill. He attacked Rep. Gabel for bringing the bill to the floor without the full agreement of the sheriffs, although we had compromised in good faith, allowing handcuffs in front during pregnancy for women who are not in labor or medical distress. We were short the needed 60 votes for passage in the House. Incredibly, some legislators feared being called soft on crime if they opposed shackling women in labor. On April 18, the bill was found to have little or no fiscal or judicial impact.
The bill was amended to apply only to Cook County, and Sheriff Dart took a neutral position. It passed the Illinois House with 86 votes on May 5, 2011 and now moves to the Senate. We will work through administrative advocacy and use the lessons we’ve learned to come back in another session to advance a statewide remedy. We thank the many organizations and representatives who have supported the bill. We owe a profound debt of gratitude in particular to Mary Dixon and Khadine Bennett of the ACLU of Illinois, to Representative Barbara Flynn Currie for her strategic guidance, and to the supportive representatives of the House Human Services committee, as well as Alan Mills, Katherine Zalewski, Tom Grippando, Sr. Rose Mary Meyer, Margie Stapleton, and Kathy Chan. We will continue to work with the courageous Rep. Gabel toward a just law to end the shackling of pregnant women. *Pseudonym.