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Maine Bills Would Restrict Shackling of Pregnant Women, Juveniles

AUGUSTA, Maine - Should juveniles and pregnant women in criminal custody be placed in shackles when being transported into court or for medical visits? It's a question that Maine lawmakers are weighing in the form of two separate bills, both up for a public hearing at the State House today.

Skye Gosselin recalls the first time she was placed in shackles at a court appearance for disorderly conduct at school. Her mother had misread the date on the summons, and when she came to court to resolve the problem she was placed in restraints. "However, what remains in my memory is not the physical pain of the handcuffs and shackles, but the emotional pain."

Gosselin, who is now 16, says she still thinks about how it felt to be in public view weighed down by loud, heavy, metal shackles. "It felt like all eyes looked at me as if I were some crazed criminal, or an animal, not what i really was - a 12-year-old child."

Under a bill put forth by Democratic Rep. Mark Dion, of Portland, juveniles in custody would not be placed in restraints, except in cases where safety or flight is a real risk. Supporters, including attorney Christopher Northrop, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the Maine School of Law, say some county courts in Maine are doing a better job than others of taking unnecessary restraints off of juvenile detainees.

Northrop says some attorneys have successfully filed motions to unshackle young clients. One example is a case involving a 12-year-old-boy who appeared in court in Lewiston several years ago.

"He was at the table. They also have parents sit at the table, so he was there, handcuffs and shackles, next to his mother," Northrop recalled. "We came in as guardian ad litem. We filed our first motion to have him unshackled. They took his handcuffs off, they took his shackles off. And for the first time he got to hug his mother."

But Northrop says because there is inconsistency among the county courts. he supports a state law to govern the entire system. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is also weighing another bill that would prohibit the shackling of pregnant women inmates during transport.

Democratic Sen. Anne Haskell, of Portland, says women are the fastest growing population in the state prison system, and pregnant women in restraints face increased risk of falling and harming themselves, or their unborn. Haskell says if her bill passes, Maine would join 25 states that have similar prohibitions in place.

"In those states there have been no documented instances of a woman in labor or during delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff," Haskell said. "This is a common sense bill and it will protect women in our state, and I ask your unanimous support."

Haskell has support from a broad coalition of medical professionals: the Coalition for Maine Women, the Maine Alliance for Reproductive Freedom, and many faith leaders, including the Christian Civic League. But the bill faces opposition from the Maine Sheriffs Association and the Maine Department of Corrections.

"To the knowledge of the department, this has never been an issue in Maine," said Gary LaPlante, director of operations for the Maine Department of Corrections. LaPlante said there are already policies in place that call for the removal of mechanical restraints on inmates who are in labor, delivery, or in post partum recovery.

"Whenever mechanical restraints are used, they shall consist only of wrist restraints without a waist-belt, with the prisoner's wrist comfortably restrained in front," LaPlante said. "When the prisoner is walking, staff shall take appropriate steps to minimize the risk of a fall."

Other opponents testified that the use of restraints on juveniles and pregnant inmates in court should be governed by the judiciary, rather than by a state law. But advocates point out that Maine is currently the only state in New England that allows the shackling of pregnant women.