Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Giving birth while shackled

A good article in the Philadelphia Weekly, by Daniel Denvir, is bringing attention in Pennsylvania this week to the issue of pregnant inmates being shackled during labor. It can be a leg or both legs, and/or an arm. Sometimes the shackles are removed after transportation to the hospital and reapplied after birth, but often not. It's hard to know exactly how often this is happening.

A 2006 Amnesty International report examined the state laws as well as written department policies on the matter, finding that only two states, California and Illinois, had laws on the use of shackles on pregnant women. Most of the states had at least some written policy, but 23 of those and the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed the use of restraints during labor.

In the years since then, I believe a few states have made new laws, and it's likely some have changed their policies. The biggest development was perhaps when the 8th circuit -- that's the most crazy conservative one -- ruled that Shawanna Nelson had her constitutional protections violated (Nelson had been featured in a 2006 NYT article). The case was brought by the ACLU, which said the 8th circuit was the first to make such a ruling.

The practice persists, it seems, because there has been little pressure to fix it. It's obscure, and until there's a case in the local press, the state legislators don't think of the problem. Once the problem is raised and pushed, few of them will actively oppose it.

Written DOC policies alone aren't enough. Tina Torres, the woman in the Weekly article, demonstrates the point. She was theoretically protected by a policy against shackling, but that policy wasn't followed.

An actual law will make it more likely to be followed (though even that is imperfect; I believe there have been reports from California of women still being shackled, if I'm not mistaken).

Pennsylvania has moved a big step in the right direction: today, less than a week after the article, the bill proposing to outlaw the practice passed unanimously out of a state senate committee.


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