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Outlawing Shackling of Women Inmates in Washington

Posted by Yee Won Chong at Jun 07, 2010 12:37 PM |

Guest blogger, Sara Ainsworth, writes about outlawing shackling of female inmates and the "new poor"

Our guest blogger, Sara Ainsworth, is the Senior Legal & Legislative Counsel at Legal Voice, an organization committed to securing and protecting the rights of all women.

A couple of weeks ago, we settled a case against the Washington Corrections Center for Women for shackling our client, Casandra Brawley, to her hospital bed while she was in labor. The settlement came the day after the trial judge denied the state’s bid to get the case dismissed. We were thrilled about the decision, because the judge held that a reasonable corrections officer should have known that shackling laboring women violates the constitution – which means that women in other jurisdictions can use this ruling to help them vindicate their rights. And we are also incredibly honored that our client was courageous enough not only to bring the lawsuit, but to help ensure the passage of legislation outlawing this treatment in Washington state prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers.

Judging from online comments to articles about the case, not everyone is thrilled about this outcome. Some claimed that my client was gaming the system (her clever plan of getting herself taken to a hospital with a metal chain around her pregnant belly succeeded!), or that she deserved to be chained while she gave birth because “when she broke the law, she gave up her rights.”  (A mean-spirited misstatement of the law, to be sure, but not so far from the truth in practice). Yet, aside from the pro-rape posts (enough said), the one that struck me the most was the outraged blogger who claimed that Ms. Brawley must now be on welfare.

But of course. As an epithet, “welfare mother” has lost none of its sting in the economic recession. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why food stamp use has gone up a mind-boggling 48% since December of 2007, while Temporary Assistance to Needy Families case loads have gone up only 12%.  Over the last several months, the New York Times has run a great series on “the new poor” – but tellingly, most every article alludes to the stigma attached to receipt of help from social programs, and includes an effort by those interviewed to explain why their circumstances are different from those “other” welfare users.

And who can blame the new poor for not wanting to be associated with the old poor – or to access the meager cash benefits provided by TANF when the consequences of doing so are so grave? If you want our miserly help, cooperate with our efforts to squeeze blood from a stone by going after the probably-also-poor father for child support – even if to do so would put your life in danger. To make sure we get the right person, list everyone you’ve had sex with within the possible period of conception.  (You think I’m kidding?  I’m so not. This is the law.) If you live in San Diego and want welfare, we’ll even go through your closets. And don’t even think about going to college, even though higher education is the key to helping people out of poverty – higher education does not count against your required weekly work hours.

And so struggling workers are shackled to low-paying jobs that keep them impoverished, or are socially maligned for accessing the frayed social safety net. Because we apparently believe that, like incarcerated pregnant women chained while they give birth, this is what they deserve.

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