In 2008, Pamela Winn landed in jail in Clayton County, Georgia, where she ultimately discovered that she was pregnant. Despite being with child and being charged with a nonviolent offense, as she was transported to and from court, corrections officials shackled her legs and arms, making it difficult to walk. As a result, she tripped, which sparked a sequence of events leading to her miscarriage.
In an interview with the Independent, Pamela recounted her experience: “I’m laying there, I’m bleeding, I’m shackled to a bed, I’ve got these two men down between my legs that I don’t know from Adam, and they’re there saying that they threw my baby in the trash.”
Pamela’s heart-wrenching account unfortunately isn’t the only instance in which many states’ longstanding policies of shackling women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period have led to unthinkable outcomes. The results have sparked an outcry prompting many states and even the federal government to reverse this policy, and as one of only eight states whose laws are silent on the issue, Georgia may be the next to ban the practice.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, introduced legislation (HB 345) to prohibit the unnecessary shackling of incarcerated women during labor, child birth and the postpartum period. While this isn’t the first such attempt in Georgia, this bill shows great promise. In fact, it has already passed the House and awaits action in the Senate, and it is easy to see why it is progressing.
Since the dawn of the modern penal system, the American prison population has largely been comprised of males. But in the past few decades, the number of incarcerated females has markedly increased—and many of them are serving time for lower-level, nonviolent drug crimes. Despite the uptick in female prisoners, many corrections facilities haven’t satisfactorily updated their standard operating procedures (SOPs). Consequently, in states like Georgia, blanket policies requiring physical restraints to protect corrections staff and fellow inmates extend to pregnant inmates – even those in labor.
This is a much larger problem than many realize. Between 5 and 10 percent of women are pregnant when they land in prison or jail. This means an inordinate number of females are subject to needless and dangerous shackling SOPs. Indeed, such physical restraint policies create tripping hazards for expectant mothers, which can harm the unborn, and belly chains can bruise the stomach.
But using such restraints during labor and delivery also impedes healthcare workers’ ability to identify and treat complications, such as excessive bleeding and preterm labor, not to mention causing undue pain in the birthing process. During emergency labor situations, medical professionals have estimated that a successful decision-to-delivery time on a crash caesarian section is under 20 minutes—an already demanding task that is made significantly more difficult when wrist, ankle and belly restraints are involved. Given that women who are in labor are a low flight risk, it is obvious that such policies shouldn’t be applied uniformly.
In addition to the medical and moral arguments against unnecessary restraint of pregnant inmates, these practices may violate Constitutional rights. Guarantees of equal protection and those against cruel and unusual punishment traditionally have been the basis for institutional reform litigation related to the shackling of pregnant and postpartum inmates.
Of course, the use of restraints in correctional facilities and judicial complexes cannot be abandoned entirely. Still, the State of Georgia needs to prohibit or strictly limit their use for pregnant or postpartum women unless it is absolutely necessary. In this way, Georgia would be championing the health of mothers and the unborn. The Peach State would also be honoring the sanctity of childbirth and giving incarcerated women a sliver of dignity in the process, and it would permit mothers and children to bond during the postpartum period without the risks and hindrances associated with physical restraints. Regardless of female inmates’ crimes, Georgia can and should offer the proper care, respect and dignity that they and their infants deserve.
Image credit: kittirat roekburi