Tag Archives: philadelphia

The Ties that Bind: It’s Time to End Shackling

4 Jun

By: Catrina Otonoga

They’ve been saying that love has made its way to PA this week. They’ve been saying that equality for all has worked its way down the winding East Coast and is on the brink of the South and Midwest. Love. Equality.

But what has gotten washed away in the seas of good tidings for the state of Virtue, Liberty, and Independence, is a woman tripping and falling face first onto her pregnant belly because of shackles around her legs and waist. She could not protect herself or her fetus because her hands were cuffed behind her back.

What has gotten lost amid tales of happy couples finally getting to share their love is a woman in labor, her ankles shackled to her hospital bed rubbing her skin raw until scars are left, her legs unable to fully open so she can birth her child. Lost is the story of her child being born into a set of shackles, years after the state has banned the practice of shackling.

Shackling is the act of restraining pregnant incarcerated women by chains that link their wrists, ankles, and their bellies. These shackles are used in correctional facilities across the US throughout pregnancy, including during trips to and from the doctor, during labor and delivery, and postpartum.

For a while there, Pennsylvania seemed like a model of the anti-shackling and reproductive justice movement. In 2008, Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla prohibited the widespread practice of shackling women during labor. And, in 2010, the Healthy Birth Act was passed in Pennsylvania that prohibited the use of shackles on pregnant incarcerated women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy during prenatal visits, labor, delivery, and postpartum.

But, the law isn’t being followed. The state of Pennsylvania has continued to illegally shackle incarcerated women during their second and third trimester of pregnancy stripping them of any of the mores Pennsylvania so proudly scrawls across bumper stickers and state quarters. The ACLU of PA estimates that 820 women a year are restrained while pregnant. Facilities in Pennsylvania filed only 109 incidents of restraint for 15 women in 2012-2013.

Four years later, prenatal clinics are unfamiliar with the law. Four years later, doctors didn’t know they could ask a correctional officer to remove the restraints. Most clinicians had never spoken to a correctional about security concerns, and many believed that using restraints was only for the correctional officer to decide and not medical personnel.

Only twenty states restrict the use of restraints on pregnant women with a statute. But, if what is happening in Pennsylvania is happening with a law in place, what is happening across the rest of the country?

I have never given birth. Honestly, I don’t even know if giving birth is in the cards for me. I imagine it hurts, an unbearable amount. I also imagine that there is nothing more joyful and loving than holding that bright red screaming baby after that hurt. I imagine it’s like no feeling I can imagine.

I have never been arrested. Never felt that cool steel around my wrists or ankles or pregnant stomach. Never felt that gut dropping feeling of uncertainty about the rest of my life.

The idea of facing these two forces, this incomparable pain and joy, the horror of detainment and arrest is unimaginable to me. Yet, every day women across the United States face this. They face it while they are in labor and delivery and while they hold their screaming red baby for the first time.

The reasons we imprison women in this country are complex, the reasons we shackle them are historic and myriad. But it does not make them right. Like many historic institutions in this country, it is time for shackling pregnant incarcerated women to come to an end. It is time to bring love and dignity to Pennsylvania.

For reproductive justice oriented organizing and mobilizing in PA check out New Voices Pittsburgh

Advertisements

Public shaming of women is unacSEPTAble behavior

14 Mar

Late last week, while browsing my Facebook feed, I clicked on a video with a caption that implored me to watch so that I could help identify a Philadelphia mother shown endangering her child. I had seen the video pop up several times, shared by quite a few people, and I’d passed it by, knowing the chances I’d recognize the mother were low (as I’ve spent approximately 1.5 weeks total of my life in that city) and that I would likely be upset by the contents of the film. This time my curiosity finally got the best of me though, and I clicked. For five minutes I sat with my eyes glued to the screen. I watched a seven-year-old girl do her best to take care of her mother in a situation with which she was clearly all too familiar, and it was heartbreaking. But as the scene crawled along, I had bigger questions.

Many readers know the video, which I will not link here because I want the voyeurism to end yesterday. The setting is the Philadelphia SEPTA public bus system, and the main characters are a pretty little blond girl and her presumably high mother, who exhibits the telltale “heroin nod”, a drowsy and quiet sort of slow tipping over at the waist that looks like you’re watching a sped-up display of the doomsday your chiropractor predicts you may face in old age if you don’t let him start six months of spinal adjustments immediately. Or imagine what it would look like if you wanted to disappear but the only way to do it is to slowly crumple inward until your hair brushes the floor and you disappear into a puddle on the ground.

Over and over the mother drifts in and back out of what looks like a heroin slumber, and her daughter watches her closely, tipping her back up by pushing her forehead with her palm when she starts to fall out of her seat or when a passenger is trying to get past her. She lovingly puts her head against her mother’s, to keep her conscious but also, it appears, because she loves her mother’s touch. When their shopping bags spill into the aisle, she cleans them up and puts them beneath her own seat, all the while saying, “Mama, mama, wake up” and “They can’t through, Mama”.

When the video went viral, a few comments on it read “Shame on you for filming this.” I, on the other hand, am happy it was filmed. Had the witness simply called the police, law enforcement most likely couldn’t have gotten there before the little family got off the bus, but the film is evidence. What I have a problem with is how it was handled from there. The police and social services were never called – not during filming and not after. What happened next was that the video was submitted to a Facebook page called People of SEPTA, which appears to be a local-flavor imitation of the mean-spirited People of Wal-Mart website – except that there is some anonymity in posting surreptitious photos of people shopping at the nation’s largest big-box store, and public transportation consumers in Philadelphia are a relatively small subset who can very easily find themselves, or a loved one, chosen as the latest victim of public mockery.

The video went viral from the Facebook page, with comments ranging from a few expressing concern for the judgment of witnesses to the majority which were rants about parenting skills, most calling the mother horrible names while expressing sanctimonious concern for the daughter. I think it’s safe to say that if you care about the wellbeing of a child, you should not call their mother a bitch or wish them dead. That little girl very clearly loves her mother; she’s likely the only one she’ll ever have.

Word of the video got back to police, who investigated. The police very publicly chastised not just the videographer but everyone on the bus who ignored, watched, or filmed it instead of contacting law enforcement. The mother was identified, not by police but by people who recognized her and called her out publicly on Facebook; she reportedly deactivated her Facebook profile after being harassed and receiving death threats. Follow-up news pieces say that the mother was not criminally charged but the child was removed from her custody, and that social services is working with the family. Now I ask you: if we want what is best for the little girl in that video – who caressed her mother so lovingly – should we shame, vilify, and humiliate her publicly outed mother? Or should we ensure that mother gets every resource available to treat her possible addiction and other problems so that they can be reunited? Should we celebrate humiliating videos by posting them to Facebook or should we be sending them to the police or other appropriate authorities, to resolve the situation privately?

Because congratulations, Internet. You just beat someone while they were down. You may have broken a family that still had hope before that video hit Facebook. You bullied that woman – and you bullied that little girl, too. That video will never go away, and it will haunt both of them. At the very least, that little girl will forever be “the girl from the SEPTA bus” and she is innocent.

As a mother with a list of personal struggles, the video and its reception hit me hard. I don’t want to be judged like that. I don’t want my daughter identifiable in a viral video of that nature. As a feminist it hit me too. The vitriol from viewers and the rush to condemn and publicly humiliate is the same passionate hate-filled behavior I see from the other side in the reproductive healthcare access movement. Film the patients, post film online, shout “baby hater” and worse at them; blindly lash out at women to “protect the innocent”, when no thought is given as to how to actually help anyone involved. I’m sensing a pattern here, and there needs to be a bigger conversation about how we value and respect one another. Whether your bullying happens on a sidewalk or from a computer in your own home, it is never okay. Pretending your end goal is to protect children when your mode of operation is to shame and humiliate women is even worse.