BOSTON — Visiting the women's prison in Framingham two summers ago, Rep. Kay Khan struck up a conversation with a mother incarcerated there, who gave birth to her youngest child while behind bars.
"I asked her about her experience, and she said she had been shackled," Khan recalled. "People told her that didn't have to happen, and she was afraid to say anything, so she went through the whole process having been shackled."
Shackling of prisoners who are in labor or recuperating after childbirth has been banned in Massachusetts since 2014, when Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law restricting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in custody of the state Department of Correction and county jails.
At the time, supporters cheered the new law as a victory for women's health. But now, more than three years later, lawmakers and advocates who pushed for the law are asking for an update. Critics say the law's provisions are not being followed in full, a claim the Baker administration disputes, and more than five dozen legislators have signed on as supporters of mandatory training and reporting legislation.
The 2014 law prohibited the use of restraints on inmates who are in labor or recuperating after childbirth. During their second or third trimesters, pregnant prisoners can only be restrained through handcuffs in front.
The law also called for the development of statewide standards on health care, nutrition, clothing and other confinement conditions for pregnant and postpartum women in prison, which Khan's office said has yet to occur.
Asked about Khan's assertions, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said the Department of Correction has been in compliance with the law's requirements for "a number of years," including both its limits on restraints and the development of standards.
A 2016 report by Prisoners' Legal Services and the Prison Birth Project found knowledge of the law varies among corrections personnel and that women in some instances were still being restrained in ways that violated the law. The report said neither the Department of Correction nor any county facility had "official written policies that comply fully with the law."
Eleven counties had policies violating the law's ban of leg or waist restraints on pregnant or postpartum women, according to the report, and four had policies violating the ban on restraints during "any stage of labor."
"The research they did led to a conclusion that there are a number of problematic patterns in enforcement practices so far, so we got together and decided to file an additional bill, just to make sure that everything is being done as we had hoped it would be," Khan said.
Khan's bill would require correctional facilities to train their staff annually on the anti-shackling law and to report instances where restraints are used. The subject of an Oct. 3 hearing, the bill remains before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
Khan said the bill would also authorize emergency medical personnel to protect patients in labor from restraints.
"This is one bill that I think is really important, not just the whole perspective of making sure they're not shackled or harmed in anyway, but it also celebrates their opportunity to give birth in a healthy environment, where they're not restricted, because it's very different," said Khan, a Newton Democrat. "Many of these women have already experienced tremendos trauma before they come into the criminal justice system, so I look for ways that we can move away from that and help them understand that there's a better way of doing things."