By Elizabeth Thompson

Update: This bill was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

A law that would limit the use of restraints on pregnant people who are incarcerated in North Carolina’s jails and prisons is one step closer to becoming law after it passed the North Carolina Senate on Wednesday.

The Dignity for Women who are Incarcerated Act, primarily sponsored by House Reps. Kristin Baker (R-Concord), Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D-Greensboro), Donna McDowell White (R-Clayton) and Kyle Hall (R-King), would limit prison and jail staff from shackling pregnant people in their second and third trimesters, labor and delivery, and during postpartum recovery. 

It would also ensure pregnant people are given sufficient nutrition, allow the incarcerated people to remain with their newborn while they are in the hospital, and ensure appropriate products are available to someone who is incarcerated who is menstruating.

The bill is now on its way back to the House for concurrence before going to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk to be signed into law.

Baker said she championed the bill after an OB/GYN approached her about a pregnant patient she had who was incarcerated, delivered her baby in shackles and whose baby died, Baker said at a Senate Health Committee meeting in early August.

“She would not draw a direct parallel line to the death of the baby and the shackling,” Baker said, “but it was clear that this outcome could have been much improved.” 

‘Just the way it is?’

That doctor was Kerianne Crockett, an OB/GYN at East Carolina University, who is also on the Executive Committee of the North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society.

After that patient’s baby died, Crockett said, she couldn’t even hold her dead child because of her restraints.

“The whole thing was just devastating,” Crockett said. “For a while I kind of just spinned my wheels trying to figure out was this just something that happened or something went wrong, or some policy wasn’t followed or is this just the way it is?”

Crockett worked with the North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society’s lobbyists to build a strategy to make a change. She told her story to Baker, who is also a physician, “doctor to doctor,” and Baker connected with the story.

Kristie Puckett-Williams, the Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice Manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, was shackled herself while she was pregnant and incarcerated. She cried “happy tears” on Tuesday, knowing the bill was on its way to the Senate floor, which had seemed unlikely at the beginning of this session. 

“What should be a very happy, joyful movement has been marred by the lack of humanity in carceral facilities,” Puckett-Williams said. “And so today is a joyous day to know that our pain and trauma was not in vain, that we endured what others don’t have to.”

Generational fight

The fight to end the shackling of pregnant women in the state’s jails and prisons was not a new concept. Former state Sen. Erica Smith (D-Henrico) worked on similar legislation for years, Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) noted in the Senate Health meeting.

“Your title ‘dignity for women’ is very appropriate,” Robinson told the committee, “because it is about dignity regardless of the situation. And even if a person is suspected of having committed whatever, they deserve dignity.”

Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) also noted Smith’s leadership on the issue on the Senate floor Wednesday. Both Jackson and Smith are running for the Democratic ticket for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

Puckett-Williams said this one step to end shackling is “busting through” the “historical narrative.”

“I think of my ancestors who were brought here in chattel slavery, shackled, oftentimes pregnant,” Puckett-Williams said. “That was common practice here in this country, to shackle people who were enslaved.”

The bill has received bipartisan support, including from the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, which originally opposed the bill. After key figures such as Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and Mecklenburg County Garry McFadden backed the bill, the association changed its position and collaborated on the bill’s language with lawmakers.

The bill was also supported by Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform.

“This legislation is the result of countless hours by a broad range of stakeholders, committed to improving the care of women and their unborn children in prisons and jails,” CCJR Executive Director Tarrah Callahan said in a statement. “As more and more women are becoming involved in the justice system, it is imperative that the policies of these facilities reflect the unique needs of this population.” 

The most important provision in the bill, Puckett-Williams said, is that it extends to all North Carolina counties.

“No matter where you go to jail, if it’s Mecklenburg, which is the most resourced county, or if you’re in Gates County, which is one of the most rural counties in North Carolina,” Puckett-Williams said, “you have an expectation of receiving prenatal care, postpartum care and that care be based in your humanity and for you and your baby.” 

“Because it’s hard enough to have a baby. But to have a baby in a carceral facility is just, it is unimaginable.”

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Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who has covered Texas politics for The Dallas Morning...