Morley: A Song for Women in Prison, Shackled in Childbirth
BY GRACE ANEIZA ALI | THE IMPRISONED ISSUE | WINTER 2014/2015
Beginnings—how we enter the world, how we begin our lives—are profound to the arc of our journeys. Imagine, then, a daughter who learns that her mother brought her into the world while chained and cuffed. Imagine a son who learns that the story of his birth begins with his mother in shackles. Imagine the doctors and prison guards who participate in and bear witness to this moment. Imagine the mother who has to bring her child into the world this way.
The statistics are sobering—2.3 million people in the American prison system and women are the fastest growing population. How many of us pause to think about the conditions for women in prison who have to give birth?
Singer/songwriter Morley Shanti Kamen (Morley), whose artistic practice is deeply steeped in using music to raise awareness for global women’s rights and human rights issues, says that the experiences of women who give birth while imprisoned, particularly the practice of shackling, remain largely under-the-radar.
“When I read about something like this or witness something like this, what I think about is what is the next move, what is the action,” says Morley.
“Unshackled.” 2014. Morely–Guitar and Vocals; Toshi Reagon–Backing Vocals. (“Unshackled” is available for download at morley.bandcamp.com. All proceeds from the song go to the Correctional Association of New York.)
In response to learning about the ongoing practice of shackling women in labor, the singer/songwriter penned the song “Unshackled.” In her lyrics, she conjures up an image of a woman living in slavery or in a war zone. Unfortunately, the “chains” Morley references are no metaphor.
in jail when her water broke
in labor in chains
her waist was shackled
hands were cuffed
armed officer in the room
As of 2015, 21 states have enacted laws making it illegal to shackle pregnant women during and after labor. And yet, in many of these states the practice continues. Even more alarming, are the majority of states where shackling and restraining women during and after labor remains within the purview of the law.
Morley debuted her song in September, 2014 at a New York event, “Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice.” Featuring the voices of women who shared their experiences of giving birth while in prison, the event was presented by the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project. The non-profit, which advocates for a humane and effective criminal justice system, is set to release a groundbreaking report, the first of its kind on reproductive justice, this winter that exposes the continuance of shackling pregnant women in our country’s prisons.
Unshackled: Women Speak Out on Mass Incarceration and Reproductive Justice at the The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, September 20, 2014. View Morley’s debut of “Unshackled” at the 1:57 mark.
Morley was invited to perform at the September event through her friend and fellow musician and activist Toshi Reagon who curates the annual Words*Rock* & Sword: A Festival Exploration Of Women’s Lives. Last year, the Festival partnered with the Correctional Association to raise awareness of the state of women’s rights in prisons. In preparing for her performance, Morley found herself deeply moved and engrossed by the work of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project. So she called the organization directly and talked to a staffer. She wanted to go behind the statistics and learn more about the women’s stories. She asked for testimonials from the women who had been shackled during labor. She wanted to honor the voices of these women, to render them, as she writes in “Unshackled,” as “experts of their own lives.”
“What I did learn was the details,” says Morley. “I wrote down everything [the staffer] said. I wanted it all in the song.”
Off stage, the artist’s activism includes working alongside women and girls in New York (the city she calls home) who have survived various forms of violence. For Morley, the report’s findings about the treatment of women in labor, specifically in New York state prisons, hits close to home. The Correctional Association report finds that out of 27 women surveyed about their treatment in prison while pregnant, 23 reported that they were shackled at some point during their pregnancy and during or after their delivery. Although a 2009 New York state law made shackling women illegal, 85% of the women surveyed in the Correctional Association’s report had still been subjected to the practice in the past five years.
Morley, who says, “at the heart of her work is justice,” has penned other songs dedicated to telling the stories of women around the world. In 2008, her song “Women of Hope” spoke to the experiences of women in war zones such as Rwanda, Mexico, and Somalia.
She continues to perform “Unshackled” at another venues and performances. The response to the song has been a positive kind of troubling. “People are made uncomfortable by it,” she says. “But they are thankful to hear about this issue because they didn’t know about it.”
Grace Aneiza Ali is the Curator and Editor of The Imprisoned Issue, and the Founder and Editorial Director of the award-winning OF NOTE magazine. She is also a faculty member in the Department of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at The City College of New York (CUNY), and a Curatorial Fellow at The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
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