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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Use of Restraints on Pregnant Women Behind Bars Symposium

Monday, November 22, 2010
Washington, DC

     Thank you, Mimi [Carter]. It's great to see everyone. I'd like to thank Mimi for serving as our facilitator. We've known each other for many years and have worked together on a number of projects, so I know we're all in good hands.

     Before I begin, I just want to thank everyone who made today's symposium possible, beginning with Malika and Faiza from the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. The Rebecca Project has really been the leader on this and so many other issues related to incarcerated women, and I'm grateful for our partnership.

     I'm also glad to have Mimi's group, the Center for Effective Public Policy, working with us. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to this issue, and I'm so pleased to have them on board.

     I also just want to thank Marlene Beckman of my staff for taking the lead in OJP on this effort, and for all she does as my advisor on corrections issues. I can tell you, the field could ask for no better advocate in the Department of Justice than Marlene!

     And - finally - I want to thank all of you for making this issue a priority and for taking time out of your busy schedules to be here today.

     As someone who's spent her career working for better - and smarter - criminal justice and corrections practices, the restraining of pregnant women is an issue that has special resonance for me.

     In the 2006 report of the Vera Institute's Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons - which I served on before I came back to OJP - we reminded readers that "our prisons and jails are part of the justice system, not a-part from it."

     I think it's important that we articulate, for the broader group of policymakers and the general public, why we should be concerned about this issue, so we can help them understand what's at stake here. And I think any discussion of this issue must begin with an acknowledgement of the responsibilities that corrections officials have for safety and security.

     Prison and jail administrators have one charge above all others, and that is to ensure the security and stability of their facilities. By far, most correctional administrators take that seriously. Part of our job is to place this need for reform in the context of that responsibility.

     I'm sure some of you know stories like Ms. Lumsey's - who'll talk to us a little later - about female inmates who've been subjected to harsh treatment. Being restrained while pregnant - or worse, while in labor - is, except in rare instances, an unnecessary and inhumane practice. But how do we get leverage behind our efforts to change it?

     First of all, I think we need to point out the gender issues at play here. The practice of restraining women comes out of a long history of correctional policies focused on men who've committed serious acts of violence. On the other hand, most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, many of them drug-related. This is a case where we need policies tailored to the actual risks at hand, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

     Next, even if you take the hard line that gender differences and personal history are irrelevant, let's not forget that restraining a woman in labor threatens both her health and the life of a child. That's why medical groups like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have come out against the practice.

     In spite of these arguments, only 10 states have enacted laws prohibiting restraints against women during childbirth. Fortunately, some corrections systems have anti-shackling policies, but these are episodic and lack the enforcement mechanisms behind state statutes. We need to do more to end the use of this unnecessary and often dangerous practice.

     This symposium is part of a larger effort that the Justice Department and the Rebecca Project are undertaking together. Our goal is to work toward reform through training and by creating a culture in which these practices are no longer the default approach.

     I think our role is to work together to help responsible officials understand that restraining pregnant women is almost always unnecessary - and harmful - and that it undercuts their ability to maintain the welfare of those in their care.

     One very important step we're taking here at the Office of Justice Programs is to set up a new national resource center on women offenders. This is a big step toward expanding our knowledge base. The idea behind the center is to create a clearinghouse of information and practical tools to support evidence-based programs and strategies that address the unique needs of women offenders.

     Our Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Institute of Corrections are providing funding support, and the Center for Effective Public Policy, along with several other partners, will handle the day-to-day management.

     Among the many things the center will do will be to draw together experts in the field, both as a source of information for practitioners and as a forum for exchanging ideas on how to move the field forward. I'm really excited about this! (Very early in my career at the ABA, I established a Resource Center on Women Offenders with Labor Department funding - in the 1970s - so this is very "d??j?? vu" for me.)

     Today's symposium is an important first conversation in what will be an ongoing national discussion. Our goal here today really is to develop a shared understanding about the history - and more importantly, the consequences - of these practices, then to explore ways that we can develop new policies that are both humane and safe - for women, for children, and for those charged with their care and well being.

     This meeting is unprecedented in terms of the diversity of people coming together on this issue. We have lawyers, advocates, corrections officials, medical specialists, private foundations, and policymakers from all levels. I know this will be a dynamic discussion, and I'm confident that it will be the start of a move toward practical reform.

     Once again, I want to thank all of you for being here today - I truly wish I could stay with you all day! - and I wish you well in your discussions. Thank you.


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