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.
Critics of HB 1488 and similar pieces of legislation fear that an unrestrained incarcerated woman may attempt to escape or pose a threat to the correctional or medical staff present. Such arguments are hardly based in the reality:
Women who are being transported to the hospital to give birth pose little, if any risk of escaping. They are barely able to walk, let alone run or attempt escape routes. When pregnant women are being transported, in labor and delivery, or post-delivery, they are under the constant surveillance of at least one officer.
Likewise, Katherine Greenier, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virgina (ACLU-VA), explains that the security threat is also minimal in such circumstances:
The vast majority of female prisoners in Virginia are non-violent offenders who pose a low security risk, particularly during labor and postpartum recovery. There are no documented instances of women in labor or during delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff.
Such arguments cannot explain why pregnant women and new mothers are still shackled in ICE detention centers. What threat do these women, who are only detained on account of their immigration status in an undoubtedly flawed system, pose to security?
The practice of shackling pregnant inmates, whether in prisons or ICE detention centers, is just one more example of an institutional failure to protect or even acknowledge the specificities and importance of women’s health care. Mothers Behind Bars, a 2010 publication by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, explains:
As with other facets of prison life, the prison health care system was originally established to serve a predominately male prison population. For this reason, while most health care in a prison setting could be described as barely adequate at best for men falls even shorter from meeting the basic needs of women. Care for pregnant women is even more dismal, considering their additional health needs.
Unfortunately, this disregard for the wellbeing of new mothers transcends the walls of prisons and ICE detention centers. The practice of shackling pregnant inmates reflects a larger trend of stigmatizing and withholding support from mothers on the basis of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, age, or lifestyle.
On the bright side, Virginia’s early defeat of HB 1488 runs opposite to the national trend: 10 states have recently passed laws limiting the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant women and many more states, including Hawaii, Nevada, and Idaho, seem to be following suit. However, ICE and a majority of states still have no policy limiting the use of restraints on pregnant detainees or inmates. At worst, we can attribute the prevalence of this practice to the persistence of xenophobic, racist, and anti-woman ideology in U.S. society; at best, we can chalk it up to ignorance. Neither of these choices is particularly comforting.
By Hilarie Meyers, Development Intern