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NC lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to limit shackling of pregnant incarcerated women

North Carolina lawmakers filed a bill Tuesday to restrict the use of shackling of pregnant incarcerated women and new mothers, joining a slew of states that have filed or passed similar measures.

HB 608, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, seeks protection for pregnant women imprisoned or jailed. The bill would limit the use of shackles on incarcerated women during the second and third trimester of pregnancy, labor and delivery, as well as the six-week postpartum period.

The bill also would add a series of requirements related to how these women should be undressed, body searched, limiting their interaction with male correctional officers. Restrictive housing, or isolating pregnant women or those who had a baby within six-weeks in custody from the general population with restrictions on their movement would be not be allowed except when prison or jail officials made individualized decisions, under the proposal. The bill further stipulates that nutritional and hygiene products must be provided.

Rep. Kristin Baker, R-Cabarrus

Rep. Kristin Baker, a Cabarrus County Republican who used to be a physician, sponsored the bill. “As a physician, I’m proud of the outcome; As a legislator, I’m proud of the process,” Baker said at a news conference Tuesday. She said the bill is the result of joint efforts by stakeholders and policymakers.

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, showed support for the bill at the conference. “The Dignity for Women oho are Incarcerated Act protects pregnant women in prison in jail from practices that put them and their unborn children in physical danger.”

Clemmons said the provisions governing the postpartum recovery of these incarcerated women enhance parent-child bonds, and thereby lower the chance of children ending up in foster care and reduce recidivism.

Stakeholders voice rare uniform support

Kristie Puckett-Williams, the Smart Justice campaign manager for the ACLU of North Carolina said the fight for more protection for incarcerated women is personal. “Twelve years ago I sat in a cage in Mecklenburg County, and I received no prenatal care, so little that five days after I took a plea so that I could be free, so that my children could be born free.” She said women should not be chained to the bed while birthing babies who are born into captivity.

A Greenville obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Kerianne Crockett, started sobbing when taking the stage to share the story about one of her patients whose infant died later while the mother was in jail. She said the mother shackled with ankle and wrist cuffs during her pregnancy, labor and part of her postpartum recovery was traumatized.

Currently, different counties handle incarcerated women’s childbirth differently. “It became evident to me that we need a single set of rules for all incarcerated pregnant individuals regardless of whether they’re in custody of state or local law enforcement officials,” Crockett said, her voice breaking.

Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson speaking on behalf of the Sheriff’s Association, gave the bill a nod. “We all are very concerned about our women that are incarcerated, that are pregnant, but we’re also concerned about the child that didn’t choose to come into this world,” Johnson said. “There are children being brought into this world, and I would rather deal with them on a positive basis, and every child needs their mom.”

Baker thanked Kaitlin Owens of the American Conservative Union for playing a role in this legislative change. Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform stressed the importance of the bill in a tweet, citing the fast growth of women in North Carolina prison and jail populations.

Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons at the state Department of Public Safety said 28 pregnant women are currently housed at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. He said the state will have the space to house pregnant incarcerated prisoners if the law changes.

“We hope to move this quickly through the House, so it can be championed in the Senate as well,” Baker said.

The federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was first introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA and Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, in the Senate in 2017 and reintroduced by in 2019, but eventually died.

A growing number of states have passed laws banning the physical restriction of incarcerated women, including Mississippi, whose governor signed the state’s Dignity for Women Act into law last week.

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