Former Boulder Weekly Editor Pamela White first wrote about the treatment of pregnant women in prison on Aug. 2, 2001. The story was called “Woman in chains,” and it was about an inmate who went into labor prematurely but was denied medical attention — and even reportedly teased by guards who thought she was faking it. Turns out, she wasn’t faking, and when she was finally taken to the infirmary, there was no one there qualified to use the sonogram, the ultrasound machine used to check on the baby’s well-being. By the time she was given proper medical care the next morning, her baby had died. It had a knot in its umbilical cord, White recalls.
“Within 24 hours, she was back in her cell,” she says. “She couldn’t afford a burial, so the baby stayed on a slab in the morgue.”
Among the horrors that White reported in that story was that the inmate, Pamela Clifton, was shackled to her bed while she gave birth to her dead baby.
Clifton later sued the Department of Corrections, which settled with her out of court. She went on to become an inmate rights activist with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. White’s story won an award from the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
White continued to follow the treatment of pregnant inmates over the years, and on Feb. 18, 2010, she wrote “Pregnant in prison,” an article exposing the shackling of inmates while they are in labor and other disturbing practices. White reported that the women are shackled to their beds even though a guard is present, making the labor process even more difficult, if not a health and safety risk to the mother and child. The story caught the attention of state legislators, who drafted White into helping write a bill forbidding the practice except in extreme cases, like when an inmate presents an immediate danger to herself or others, or is a serious escape risk.
White agreed to help write the bill and managed the possible conflict of interest by turning BW’s coverage of the story over to Managing Editor Jefferson Dodge, who documented the bill’s path through the legislative process. After it was passed by lawmakers, Senate Bill 193 was signed by Gov. Bill Ritter and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011. At the time, only six other states had laws banning the shackling of inmates in labor.
The fact that her coverage was responsible for changing state law won White many accolades, including a second place award for public service in a regional SPJ contest.
It was also one of the drivers behind White receiving a lifetime achievement award from the SPJ called “Keeper of the Flame” in April 2011, honoring her for a career that began in 1984 at the Colorado Daily, where White served as the paper’s first woman editor before taking over the same role at BW.
In addition to the stories about shackling inmates in labor, White documented other questionable practices, like overly invasive strip searches at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, which she wrote about in July 2010.
She calls her coverage of the treatment of incarcerated women some of the most important work of her career.