Despite Anti-Shackling Laws Pregnant Prisoners Are Still Being Put In Handcuffs and Chains

George Lavender

"Pennsylvania Corrections' own records show pregnant women were shackled 109 times in the 2012— 2013 fiscal year. And that's just in jails that report it."

Car­olyn Sufrin still remem­bers the first time she saw some­one give birth in shackles.

In 2003 Sufrin was a res­i­dent in train­ing as an Ob/​Gyn in Pitts­burgh. I deliv­ered a baby of a woman who was shack­led in bed” she told Mak­ing Con­tacts Lisa Bart­fai in 2013, and it was an extreme­ly trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence for me as a doc­tor, and also for the patient.”

Accord­ing to Sufrin, shack­ling preg­nant women could make respond­ing to med­ical emer­gen­cies extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. In those moments we don’t have time to be nego­ti­at­ing with a guard or a cor­rec­tion­al offi­cer to say, Hey you mind just unlock­ing those hand­cuffs, those restraints?’”

The Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion adopt­ed a res­o­lu­tion in 2010 to pro­hib­it the shack­ling of women dur­ing labor and a grow­ing num­ber of states have intro­duced at least some legal lim­i­ta­tions on the use of shack­les on preg­nant prisoners.

Penn­syl­va­nia passed a law pro­hibit­ing the shack­ling of preg­nant inmates after their sec­ond trimester in 2010 but in a report for WHYY in part­ner­ship with The Inves­tiga­tive Fund at the Nation Insti­tute, Audrey Quinn found that enforc­ing the law has been complicated.

Ear­li­er this year the Penn­syl­va­nia ACLU report­ed hos­pi­tal staff across the state still say­ing they see inmates com­ing in to give birth with hand­cuffs on. Penn­syl­va­nia Cor­rec­tions’ own records show preg­nant women were shack­led 109 times in the 20122013 fis­cal year. And that’s just in jails that report it.

Now we’re just work­ing to get it imple­ment­ed effec­tive­ly,” says Penn­syl­va­nia state sen­a­tor Daylin Leach, the pri­ma­ry author of the anti-shack­ling bill.

But does­n’t the pas­sage of a law mean that progress will be made?

Leach gives a tired laugh. The fact is, he says, when you do pass new leg­is­la­tion you do have to noti­fy peo­ple as to the require­ments of that leg­is­la­tion. Par­tic­u­lar­ly the peo­ple who are going to be deal­ing with that legislation.”

To some peo­ple, not shack­ling preg­nant women seems like a no-brain­er. But to many cor­rec­tions work­ers, this goes against a very basic tenet of prison life: when an inmate gets escort­ed off prison grounds, they get shack­led. Con­tin­ue reading… 

Reporter Audrey Quinn sub­mit­ted free­dom of infor­ma­tion requests to Blair Coun­ty Prison, for records of preg­nant inmate shackling.

On each record sheet the war­den gets a space to explain why each preg­nant woman need­ed to be shack­led. There’s fif­teen lines of blank space, and the form says the war­den can use the back side of the page if nec­es­sary. I lined up all the record sheets by the dates they got filled out. The rea­sons why each woman was shack­led fol­lowed a pat­tern. For the first cou­ple months of reports, the records said restraints were used for safe­ty rea­sons.” The next few months, the excuse is sec­urity rea­sons.” After that, offi­cers sim­ply stat­ed secu­ri­ty” as the rea­son for shack­ling. There’s bare­ly any ref­er­ence to the wom­en’s own behav­ior. Just the phras­ing du jour for why shack­les were needed.

I called up Blair Coun­ty War­den Matt John­ston. I was curi­ous to ask why so much shack­ling was hap­pen­ing dur­ing pregnancies.

I’m not inter­est­ed in talk­ing about that,” he told me. Nei­ther was the Blair Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er. I got no com­ment from the Office of Coun­ty Inspec­tion and Ser­vices. And the Penn­syl­va­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al’s office told me they could­n’t talk to me about shack­ling by the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions. The depart­ment is their client. No one would claim respon­si­bil­i­ty for shack­ling over­sight. Con­tin­ue reading…

Penn­syl­va­nia is not alone in con­tin­u­ing to shack­le preg­nant women. Ear­li­er this month, the ACLU of Mon­tana issued a report claim­ing that preg­nant women had been mis­treat­ed inside the state’s jails.

The per­cent­age of incar­cer­at­ed women in Mon­tana is twice the nation­al aver­age. In 2011, over 4,000 women were booked into coun­ty jails in Mon­tana. The major­i­ty of Montana’s female pris­on­ers are non-vio­lent offend­ers of repro­duc­tive age. Despite an increas­ing num­ber of preg­nant pris­on­ers stay­ing for longer peri­ods of time in coun­ty jails, many jails in Mon­tana pro­vide inad­e­quate med­ical treat­ment to preg­nant pris­on­ers, and con­tin­ue to engage in uni­ver­sal­ly reject­ed prac­tices such as shack­ling female pris­on­ers dur­ing labor and deliv­ery. Con­tin­ue reading…

Repro­duc­tive Lock­down: An Exam­i­na­tion of Mon­tana Deten­tion Cen­ters and the Treat­ment of Preg­nant Pris­on­ers“ describes cas­es in which women were alleged­ly shack­led dur­ing labor or forced to give birth on the floors of cells.

Mon­tana jails are woe­ful­ly lack­ing in poli­cies that will ensure preg­nant pris­on­ers get the med­ical care they need and are pro­tect­ed from abu­sive prac­tices like shack­ling,” ACLU of Mon­tana head Scott Crich­ton said.

The study cites a woman who was forced to deliv­er her daugh­ter on an unsan­i­tary book­ing room floor of the Yel­low­stone Coun­ty Deten­tion Facil­i­ty in Billings in 2012 after sev­er­al requests for med­ical aid were ignored.

Yel­low­stone Coun­ty jail offi­cials did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request for com­ment on Thursday.

The report also point­ed to a 2008 case in which coun­ty deten­tion offi­cers from west­ern Mon­tana chained the leg of a hos­pi­tal­ized inmate to her bed dur­ing deliv­ery despite an epidur­al that par­a­lyzed her from the waist down, even after a nurse ques­tioned the need for restraints. Con­tin­ue reading…

All this takes place against a back­drop of increased incar­cer­a­tion of women. Accord­ing to US Bureau of Jus­tice sta­tis­tics com­piled by the Sen­tenc­ing Project, between 1980 and 2010 the num­ber of women in prison increased by 646%.

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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