Formerly Incarcerated Women in Tennessee Win Reforms Ending Shackled Births

Within 30 days, Tennessee will make abortion a Class C felony. This is because Tennessee is one the 13 states that has a trigger law. ban abortionAs soon as you have received the protections under Roe v. Wade They were overturned. Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to strike down Roe v. WadeThe ban is currently being implemented in Tennessee.

Tennessee already has a ban on abortion, but this is just the latest form state violence. high maternal mortality rateThe country’s lowest rate of food assistance for families, has been deployed against its pregnant residents.

In 2014, Tennessee was the first state to allow women to vote. prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy. That bill included what’s known as a sunset clause, allowing the law to expire in 2016, but lawmakers have subsequently reintroduced similar bills targeting pregnant people and reproductive rights with permanent implementation. In fact, in May of this year, Governor. Bill Lee signed the law criminalizing the distribution of abortion medications by mail.

Abortion access for inmates has been massively blocked even though it is legal in the State. Bucky Rowland, Maury County Sheriff, refused to allow a woman to get an abortion in 2015. The woman’s attorney attempted to have a court lower her bond, which would allow her release from jail, but by the time it was lowered, she was too far along in her pregnancy to access the procedure. Three months later, she gave birth. She gave birth in 2016. filed federal suit against the sheriff for denying her abortion access. A federal court later dismissed her lawsuit.

Until recently, pregnant Tennesseans behind bars suffered an additional indignity — the threat of being handcuffed and chained at the belly and ankles during pregnancy, including while in labor or shortly after having their baby. It’s a practice known as shackling and, as late as 202018 states, including Tennessee had no state-wide restrictions on the shackling of pregnant women.

This last indignity was dealt with in mid-May by Tennessee passed a law prohibiting jails and prisons from shackling and restraining pregnant people. Only 11 states have legal protections against this practice.

This legislative victory in Tennessee was the result of years of organizing by reproductive justice advocates. These advocates included formerly incarcerated women who had suffered the humiliation of being restrained during pregnancy and sometimes during labor.

Laboring in Cuffs

In 2008, Juana Villegas was nine months pregnant when police asked for her driver’s license during a routine traffic stop. When Villegas, who was undocumented, could not produce one, police took her to Nashville’s Davidson County Jail and detained her under the 287(g) program that allowed police to detain people on federal immigration violations.

Villegas was finally released three days later while still in jail went into labor. Before she was allowed to be taken to the hospital, officers placed her in handcuffs and ankles. Two male officers accompanied the woman. Two male officers accompanied her to the hospital.

A third officer, who relieved the two male officers, removed the handcuffs, but kept one of Villegas’s legs cuffed to the bed. A fourth officer removed all restraints just two hours before Villegas gave her birth. Six hours after her birth, officers tied Villegas by her ankle to the bed. The baby was taken home with her family. Staff at the hospital gave her a breast-pump to take back to jail, but she refused to be allowed to keep it. She became incontinent and was unable to pump. A few days later, she was released and able to join her husband and her other children.

Villegas filed a suit in 2009 against the jail for deliberate indifference. In 2013, Nashville officials agreed to a $490,000 settlement. Judge also asked immigration officials to grant Villegas a U visa, which is usually reserved for victims of crime. Villegas was allowed to remain in the U.S.A with her four children, which included the son she gave birth to while in prison.

Villegas had filed suit to change the policy of the Davidson County jail regarding pregnant women being held in custody. This meant that, when Jawharrah Bahar was at the jail in 2010, she was taken to her doctor’s appointments in handcuffs but not in leg irons. Bahar recalls that she was also shackled by jail officers at other times, making it almost impossible to walk without falling.

Even though her legs were free, she was afraid of falling and couldn’t catch herself when handcuffed. The shoes that were given to her in jail did not fit properly. “They flopped off my feet,” she told Truthout. “I always had in the back of my mind: I hope I don’t fall.”

She was forced to labor by jail officials who handcuffed her wrist to a rail in an ambulance. “That was ridiculous,” she said. “Where the hell am I going to go? I’m in labor.” Once she arrived at the hospital, however, she was allowed to give birth to her son unrestrained.

However, there is no law that prohibits other jails and prison officials from shackling pregnant persons. Clay County is two hours northeast from Nashville. Jail officials chained women, including pregnant ones, to chairs as late as 2019.

That’s what happened to Shauna Scott, who was 11 weeks pregnant when she was arrested for a probation violation. Mackenzie Melton, the woman next to her was also pregnant. She was chained to a chair six days. developed a blood clot. (Melton was transferred to a treatment facilityAfter these six days.

Advocate for Pregnant Women Behind Bars

Dawn Harrington was never pregnant behind bars. But she spent nearly a year on Rikers Island, New York City’s island-jail complex, in 2008. There she was surrounded with mothers trying to parent her, through 15-minute calls and 1-hour visits to navigate family court proceedings and to retain their legal parental rights.

After her release, she returned home to Tennessee and co-founded Free Hearts, a local non-profit by and for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated females. They provided support services and assistance to women and children affected by incarceration. They also fought for in-person visits to local jails. The Primary Caretakers Act allows community-based alternatives to incarceration for those who have primary caretaking responsibilities.

Bahar joined Free Hearts in 2016 Bahar had never been involved in advocacy before. However, she recalls that she filed numerous grievances while in prison and then in prison about abusive conditions. “I used to always be fussing about the injustices that [jail and prison officials] were doing,” she said. “I grieved everybody. I wanted to stand up for what’s right.”

Free Hearts started by canvassing Rutherford County, Middle Tennessee. Civil Rights Corp had won a settlementPrivate probation company Providence Community Corporation (PCC), for extorting fees from those under its supervision. They alerted those who were on probation under PCC to the fact that they were being extorted. eligible for the settlement. She shared her story about giving up her baby and being separated from her child for more than three years. Bahar’s public sharing of her story helped pass the Primary Caretakers Act.

“I never thought I’d be doing no activism or helping pass laws,” Bahar recalled. But now, she is Free Hearts’s outreach director.

Harrington attended a meeting on efforts to end shackling during pregnancy in 2017, hosted by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. They had previously passed anti-shackling legislation for California. There, she met former incarcerated organizers that had succeeded in passing laws banning shackling during pregnancies in their states. She also met organizers in Oklahoma and Georgia, who were still trying to pass similar protections. (They did so in 2018And 2019 respectively.) Harrington returned home determined to fight for similar protections here in Tennessee.

Free Hearts teamed up with Healthy and Free Tennessee (a statewide reproductive justice network) to push a package bill to not only ban shackling but also provide minimal prenatal care behind bars and give breast pumps to new mothers. The package also included a proposal to ban solitary confinement for all pregnant people, since Tennessee has no restrictions against subjecting pregnant people to this practice, which has been proven to negatively affect people’s physical and mental health. The development of the foetus can also be affected by isolation and inability for pregnant women to exercise.

These bills were in 2019 introduced in both Tennessee state houses. Bahar and other Free Hearts members, who were also pregnant behind bars, shared their experiences with media and legislators. Healthy and Free Tennessee also rallied medical professionals to alert them to the problem.

“We work with nursing associations, the Tennessee Medical Association, [groups that have] traditionally not gotten involved in these types of issues,” Nina Gurak is the policy director at Healthy and Free Tennessee. Truthout.

Healthy and Free Tennessee has been working with anti-violence organizations and advocates throughout the state for many years. The bill allowed them not only to engage with them about shackling, but also, Gurak recalled, “to pivot from the carceral nature of anti-violence work and build connections. We can all agree shackling is bad.” From there, she said, they expanded their conversations to talk about the ways in which criminalization impacts abuse survivors, including their risk of being arrested when police are called for domestic violence or for physically defending themselves against abusive partners, and why both organizations centered abolition rather than increased policing and imprisonment to stop gender-based violence.

Despite their combined efforts, however the bills were defeated by the legislative subcommittee. In 2020, lawmakers reintroduced them — this time each issue had in its own bill. The organizers also expanded their strategies.

Free Hearts had already launched its Tennessee Regional Organizing Fellowship in order to help formerly incarcerated women organize and lead, especially in areas where Free Hearts had not previously been present. “We’re from Nashville, we’re mostly Black women,” Harrington told Truthout. “We can’t be the ones to go into some of these communities and organize. The majority of our state is rural, so it has to be people in those communities.” The fellowship enabled them to reach formerly incarcerated women in rural areas, bringing them into the organizing.

Healthy and Free Tennessee reached into the hands of groups working on intersecting issues. The coalition lobbied at the capitol with the Tennessee AIDS Action Network for the prenatal care bill. It includes HIV screening as one of its minimum standards. The pandemic ravaged the USA, closing down legislative offices and making it possible to do advocacy and policy-making online.

Healthy and Free Tennessee was already able to convene online as a statewide alliance with its partner organizations and advocates in different parts of Tennessee. Members quickly jumped online and participated in Zoom video conferences. These Zoom conferences covered the bills, but also reached out to advocates who were focusing on other reproductive and health justice topics, such as expanding Medicaid and abortion access.

Free Hearts was not comfortable with online organizing. Some members had difficulty learning the technology, while others lived in rural areas with poor internet reception and limited phone coverage. This prevented them from even calling into Zoom meetings.

Both organizations were thrilled when lawmakers came to their aid. passed the prenatal care billIn June. They pledged to keep pushing until all other bills were passed.

2021 will see the end of slavery anti-solitaryThe bills were introduced againA new Senate Bill 1423To prohibit staff from performing body cavity searches on pregnant and postpartum women without authorization from higher-ranking prison officials or jail officers. They all failed to pass.

“We’re Just Going to Keep Fighting”

In 2022, lawmakers introduced new bills. prohibit shacklingAnd body cavity searchesPrisons and jails for pregnant women

Free Hearts launched a text messaging campaign asking recipients to sign a petition in support of the anti-shackling bill. Then, they asked them to contact their legislators to support the bill. The third text asked recipients if they would be willing to come to Nashville for the annual lobby-day.

“From those, we identified thousands of people that supported this legislation,” Harrington recalled. “Being able to identify over 3,000 people in the heart of rural Tennessee, in very conservative counties, through a text campaign is invaluable. That’s also something we can translate to in-person [organizing].”

They were able this year to gather at the state capitol for more in-person lobbying. Some of them were former incarcerated women who were recently pregnant and had been in jail. Harrington recalled one woman, who had recently been part of Free Hearts’s jail program and was nearly ready to give birth, sharing her experiences with legislators. She had never been involved with organizing before and she felt powerful. “It’s so important to get a taste of our own power so that we can come together and actually change things,” Harrington said.

The bill was opposed by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. At a corrections subcommittee hearing, Jeff Bledsoe, the association’s executive director, testified against the bill. He asserted that jailers sometimes find it necessaryA pregnant woman is to be confined, as shown in the example of a 14-bed prison that had no female cells. The pregnant woman was chained to a chair in a hallway as she entered the jail. He said that the woman had been repeatedly jailed for violating probation through drug use. “They’re not only putting themselves at harm, but [also] their unborn child,” he told lawmakers.

Gurak noted that his logic is part of a larger surveillance and policing program of pregnant women. This includes physically restraining pregnant women, jailing them for the safety of the fetus, and criminalizing abortion.

Despite the sheriffs’ opposition, lawmakers voted to pass the anti-shackling bill from the committee onto the floor for a vote. It passed the second time and was signed into law by the governor on May 25. It takes effect July 1.

“It’s a reminder that everything that we do has taken multiple years. Every legislation we’ve been able to pass, it’s never been a one-year thing,” Harrington said.

What’s more, she added, it showed formerly incarcerated women, many of whom had never been involved in organizing or activism before, that, “If we could do this, we could do anything. Organizing to build power works and we’re just going to keep fighting until all the things that hold us back are taken down.”

Harrington’s words are worth reflecting on as people across the U.S. now contend with the reality of limited and scattered abortion access. The far right’s slashing of reproductive rights took place over years, and reversing their victories won’t be a “one-year thing.” But mass organizing to build power, particularly by those who are most impacted and have long been marginalized, has proven, again and again, that it is possible to challenge and change reproductive (and other) injustices.

As Gurak stated in a press release minutes after the Supreme Court decision, “While we are heartbroken, we have also been preparing for this possibility, and will continue to center abolition in the fight for reproductive justice for all Tennesseans. We will always oppose laws that punish people for pregnancy outcomes and will always work to provide accurate resources and information, fight for increased resources for pregnant people and families, and advocate for the rights of pregnant people in Tennessee.”