Friday, November 13, 2009

Sentenced to Hard Labor

The growing population of women in prisons and jails brings with it special challenges, particularly if the woman is pregnant. Like -- what happens when she goes into labor? Is she a flight risk? Is this the moment she’s been waiting for – an opportunity to escape? Can you imagine being in active labor and trying to outrun a prison guard?

This seems to be the thinking of many in the correctional system. In Pennsylvania and 39 other states, correctional officers are allowed to shackle pregnant inmates on the way to the hospital, as well as during labor and delivery. Officials justify this practice by saying they need to prevent inmates from escaping. However, there is no record anywhere of an escape attempt by a woman in labor. And guess what? Among states that have banned the practice, there have been no escape attempts.

In addition to being an unnecessary security precaution, shackling is known to be risky for the health of women and their unborn children. The use of physical restraints can severely restrict women’s ability to move and change positions during labor. More importantly, shackles can interfere with medical staff’s ability to provide appropriate care or act quickly in emergency situations. Organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, and the American Correctional Association support policies that ban or restrict the use of shackles and other restraints during labor and delivery.

Several states and the federal government have recognized the risks associated with shackling and have implemented new policies that restrict the use of these restraints. Texas, New York, New Mexico, Vermont, Illinois, and California have all passed legislation prohibiting the use of shackles on pregnant inmates, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshall Service, and the states of Florida, Wyoming, Washington, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have implemented administrative policies restricting the use of shackles and other restraints on pregnant inmates during labor and delivery.

Advocates in Pennsylvania are trying to push the state in this direction. State Senator Daylin Leach recently introduced the Health Birth for Incarcerated Women Act (Senate Bill 1074). It would ban the use of shackles during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery except for in extreme circumstances. This bill would also require correctional facilities to keep written records and justification for the use of restraints. This legislation could also open the door to establishing more comprehensive health services for incarcerated women who are pregnant.

To learn more, listen to Senator Leach and Kathleen Creamer of Community Legal Services discuss the bill on the senator’s podcast or read the full text of the bill.

Jenny in Philadelphia

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