By Hilarie Meyers, Development Intern
Earlier this year, the Virginia House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee killed a bill (HB 1488) that would have limited the use of restraints and shackles on incarcerated pregnant women.
The bill only proposed limited reforms to current practices by “[limiting] the restraint of pregnant inmates during labor, transport to a medical facility, delivery, or postpartum recovery in the commonwealth’s correctional facilities.” Though far from comprehensive, HB 1488 would have provided a basic level of protection for pregnant inmates in Virginia, representing a moment of progress in a state with an already unacceptable “F+” status quo for treatment of incarcerated women. However, the bill’s defeat undoubtedly marks a step backwards in the fight to promote the rights and wellbeing of women, children, and prisoners.
The story of HB 1488 sheds light on the use of shackles and restraints on incarcerated pregnant women at both prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers around the country. This practice demonstrates a disregard for the health and rights of incarcerated women and their children. In fact, a number of major correctional and medical associations (including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Medical Association) oppose the use of restraints on pregnant women and new mothers and for good reason: the practice can and often does have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of both mother and child.
According to RH Reality Check, a shackled inmate is more likely to fall and injure herself and/or her child. Shackling can lead to harmful complications during labor, delivery, and the postpartum recovery process, all of which require mobility. According to Amnesty International:
Physician Dr. Patricia Garcia notes that “women in labor need to be mobile so that they can assume various positions…Having the woman in shackles compromises the ability to manipulate her legs into the proper position for treatment. The mother and baby’s health could be compromised if there were complications during delivery such as hemorrhage or decrease in fetal heart beat. If there were a need for a C Section, the mother needs to be moved to an operating room immediately and a delay of even five minutes could result in permanent brain damage for the baby. …”
Numerous women, such as Shawanna Nelson, whose story was featured in the New York Times, have reported lasting damage to their health after being forced to give birth while immobilized and, in Nelson’s case, without sufficient pain medication.