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The Voices of the Unshackled

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September 22, 2014

States_of_Denial_Unshackled_300On a pleasant fall Saturday afternoon, September 20, 2014 to be exact, I made my way from Barnard College to the breath taking Brooklyn Museum located in Eastern Parkway. I regrettably did not get to wander the museum because I came to the museum for a specific purpose.

I attended the event, Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice, the third event in the “States of Denial” Panel Series. The term, shackled, resonates with because it represents a physical practice to be discussed later in this blog post as well as a mental shackling. The event was a well-attended collaboration between the Correctional Association of New York and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The room buzzed with soft smooth jazzy beats as we prepared for the conversations to begin. The day’s conversation began with a spoken word piece performed and written by a dynamic woman named Toshi Regan.

In addition, the event organizers touched on the history of the term reproductive justice. The term was coined at a black women’s caucus in 1994 to shed light on the connection between reproductive rights and social justice in lives of women color and to go beyond women’s choice to address economic, political, and social factors.

Following her insightful and delightful spoken word piece calling for order, the audience was presented some unsettling statistics regarding women’s imprisonment and reproductive health:

1. “Over half of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States are parents of children under age 18. More than 8.3 million children in the country have a parent under some form of criminal justice supervision.” (Correctional Association of New York)

 2. “The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence. Three-quarters have histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, and 82% suffered serious physical or sexual abuse as children.” (Correctional Association of New York)

3. Low-income women of color and communities of color are disproportionately affected by incarceration: nearly 65% of women in New York’s prisons are African-American or Latina, most from a handful of poor urban areas across the state. (Correctional Association of New York)

4. 1 in 20 women are pregnant at time of their incarceration (Correctional Association of New York)

5. The vast majority of the 2000 or so inmates who give birth in American prisons are separated from their babies shortly after birth.(ABC News)

The event promised to be an “intersection of mass incarceration and reproductive health issues” (Correctional Association of New York). They more than delivered on their promise. Formerly incarcerated women, unsurprisingly women of color, warmed the chilly air with their tearful testimonies recounting their prison experiences. These women all shared one thing (other than being formerly incarcerated); they shared their love for their children. Some of the women were pregnant at the time of their incarceration, some delivered children while in jail, and or had children living with family members or in foster care situations.

The moderators were from Hunter College and Queens College. They touched upon the intersection of factors like poverty, race, substance abuse, and domestic abuse involved in incarceration.

The most upsetting portion of the event were the women’s testimonies about a practice called shackling where pregnant woman and shacked during the birthing process. Some women who gave birth during their incarceration noted that leg chains, belly chains, handcuffs, and lock boxes were used for their transportation to and from the prison despite having undergone a C-section. Interestingly enough, the shackling of pregnant women was made illegal in the state of New York through the 2009 New York Anti-Shackling Bill (Click here for more info).  Notably, the belly chains caused them serious discomfort and their handcuff caused them discomfort in labor. They informed us that they were shackled to their gurneys during labor and familial support was not allowed.  Throughout the labor, guards maintain supervision. These women recounted that it was an obstruction to their privacy.  After their labor, they reported having to do laborious tasks like buffing the floor. A Latina woman reported that it is rare for them to be near their babies for length of time. While she cried, the woman told us that her baby was removed from the room because the policy was that the baby and the mother could not sleep in the bed together.

According to an American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, shackling poses risk to women’s health and safety for the child. (Click here for more info) 

They also spoke about the inadequate prenatal and postnatal care they received as well as the taunting by prison personnel about their abilities to be fit mothers by prison staff while in prison. One woman specifically mentioned the lack of support in terms of rehabilitation or counseling services she received for drug addictions. She explained that she has to ask for permission before visiting her son. These women share a continued path of self-discovery and the wisdom to assist others on their path.

They spoke of their triumphs in the system like attaining custody of their children, starting their lives again, and the empowerment of sharing their experiences and serving as a comfort to others. One woman spoke of an experience where one of her daughters was unable to stay with the mother and her daughter. The daughter was motivated to stay with her mother, sixteen-years-old at the time, and successfully sued for the right to stay with her mother and sister.

All throughout, I fought back tears and clapped in agreement with these women. I clapped at their triumphs and felt sorrow at their low points. I will carry the women from Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice in my thoughts as I embark on women’s rights and reproductive justice advocacy. They remind me that social, political, and economic issues are intrinsic to the choices we have. While we advocate for choice, we must remember to advocate for access to choice.


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