I first learned about the shackling of inmates in labor back in 1999 after Amnesty International did its study of the issue and made its findings public. What I read in that report, titled “Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody,” was deeply disturbing. Here are some highlights:
Warnice Robinson, sent to prison for shoplifting, was shackled to the bed during her entire labor, which caused problems when it came time to push her baby out.
“Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn’t remove the lower part of the bed for delivery, and they couldn’t put my feet in stirrups,” she told Amnesty. “My feet were shackled together, and I couldn’t get my legs apart. The doctor called for an officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming, but I couldn’t open my legs.”
A labor nurse recalled seeing a young woman brought into the hospital, doubled over in pain, her prison uniform dripping wet with amniotic fluid, her wrist shackled to that of a prison guard twice her size. She was 15.
Maria Jones, imprisoned in California on drug charges, told how the medical staff wanted her to walk to promote active labor. However, the guard refused to remove her shackles, so she shuffled along until her ankles were rubbed raw, suffering that additional pain and indignity, while also going through labor.
“It was unbelievable,” she told Amnesty’s researchers. “As if I was going to go anywhere.”
My initial response to Amnesty’s report was, “You have got to be kidding me.”
As the mother of two, I couldn’t fathom how any woman in labor could be capable of running away, let alone overpowering an armed guard. More than that, I couldn’t imagine going through long hours of labor chained to a bed. The very idea gave me chills.
As any woman who has given birth knows, being able to walk, rock, squat, lean, get on your hands and knees and move as your body demands during and between contractions is one way to cope with the pain of labor and also helps to speed labor. Being chained in one spot, particularly if you’re flat on your back, has been proven to increase pain, prolong labor and increase the chance of complications.
Reading that report, it seemed to me that those who run our prisons had forgotten to adjust the rules to accommodate the needs of women or the uniquely female circumstances of pregnancy and childbirth. They’d allowed the need for security to trump not only humanitarian concerns, but also common sense. Their focus on security had become myopic and, in these circumstances, cold and cruel.
Amnesty’s report is now 11 years old, but the shackling of inmates in labor is still a common practice across the United States and here in Colorado, where 50 to 60 incarcerated women give birth each year.
When I visited Denver Women’s Correctional Facility in January to interview pregnant inmates about the prenatal care they received, I had the opportunity to speak with two inmates who’d recently given birth. I was also able to discuss DOC’s shackling policy with officials.
DOC’s official policy is to keep inmates who are in labor under armed guard and shackled to their hospital bed by one extremity. But as I learned during my interviews, it’s a policy that is enforced inconsistently. Some guards decline to shackle inmates in labor, perhaps realizing how ridiculous it is. And there are some nurses who will quietly insist that shackles be removed. So whether an inmate must endure her labor in chains depends entirely on which nurse and which guard have been assigned to her.
That’s hardly fair. Of course, DOC’s policy applies only to state prisons. In Colorado, every city and county has its own policy regarding the shackling of pregnant and laboring inmates. Inmates who go into labor while at Boulder County Jail might be shackled while on their way to the hospital, but not once they arrive. In Denver County, on the other hand, an inmate in labor will find herself leashed to the bed by a long chain attached to one ankle.
Interestingly — and tellingly — doctors and nurses aren’t the ones who want these women to be shackled. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has denounced the practice, calling it “demeaning and unnecessary,” as well as potentially dangerous to both mother and fetus.
“Incarcerated women in labor constitute a particularly vulnerable population,” the official ACOG statement reads. “Preventing the practice of shackling these women is an important step toward assuring humanitarian care and social justice.”
And yet only six states — soon to be seven with the addition of Pennsylvania — have statutes regulating the use of shackles on pregnant and laboring inmates. Other states have departments of corrections that have policies limiting shackling, but no state law to control the practice at the county or city level.
As I digested this information in preparation for writing my article, “Pregnant in prison,” I came to realize how vulnerable pregnant inmates are and how that vulnerability puts not only them and their babies at risk, but also the state of Colorado. It’s only a matter of time before an inmate sues for the unnecessary pain and suffering she endured because of being shackled in labor. And when that lawsuit comes, it will stand on ground that is increasingly solid.
Shawanna Nelson, who’d been sentenced to prison in Arkansas for credit card fraud and writing bad checks, went into labor three months into a six-year sentence. A corrections officer shackled her ankles to opposite sides of the bed and her wrist to the IV rail, drastically restricting her movement. He wouldn’t unshackle her to let her go to the bathroom, forcing her to use a bedpan instead. Her doctor and the nurses asked that the guard remove the shackles; he refused. Nelson endured her entire labor without pain relief while chained on her back. In an interview about the experience, she says she thinks the guard was trying to “teach her a lesson” by subjecting her to additional humiliation and pain.
Understandably, Nelson sued. In October, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Nelson vs. Norris that shackling an inmate in labor constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment and constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ruling enables Nelson’s suit to move forward.
In January, I asked Joanie Shoemaker, deputy director of corrections, about the possibility of DOC changing its policy.
“We periodically make changes in policies … [T]here’s been discussion at both our state level and the national level about what is appropriate,” she said. “There are always ongoing changes, and I’m sure that the discussion on the use of restraints in labor and delivery is something that we’ll continue to talk about … Colorado DOC prides itself on being responsive to what the environment is needing and to be progressive in the way that we manage our offender population.”
DOC should, indeed, be actively reconsidering and revising its policy. It would be in good company should it choose to do so. The Bureau of Federal Prisons, which deals with approximately 1,300 inmate births a year, and the U.S. Marshal Service, which specializes in safely transporting fugitives and dangerous inmates, have both revised their policies to prohibit the shackling of inmates during labor, delivery and the recovery process. If they can do it, DOC certainly can.
A spokeswoman for DOC tried to hammer home to me repeatedly that “these are dangerous women” and that shackling them is a way to protect “public safety.” And, indeed, some are dangerous.
However, most women in prison are there for committing nonviolent crimes like theft and drug possession. The danger they represent is largely a danger to themselves in terms of unhealthy lifestyles and unsafe behaviors, not violence to others. In fact, the thing most female inmates have in common is that they are victims of violence, particularly sexual violence.
But a change in DOC policy would only address the problem at the state level, leaving county and city jails without the guidance they need to protect both themselves and inmates and their babies.
As I took in this information, it became clear to me that in order to abolish the practice, to ensure that pregnant inmates across the state are treated fairly, and to protect our cities, our counties and our state from lawsuits, a state law would be needed.
I sat down and put all of this into my article, thinking that an activist group might take up the issue and move forward with a bill. But that didn’t happen.
And so I reached a decision: I would push for a bill myself.
I gathered my research, distilled it and forwarded it, together with my article, to a number of lawmakers from both parties. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, was the first to call me, and soon I had an appointment with him to discuss the issue. After listening to a quick overview, he gave his approval for late-bill status.
That same day, Dr. Eliza Buyers, a representative of ACOG, contacted me to say that their national organization was working to eliminate the shackling of laboring inmates nationwide.
She contacted other organizations, including the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), and suddenly we had a small coalition working on the issue.
Before the end of the week, Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, had agreed to carry the bill.
I took the wording from a number of similar bills and wrote a draft, which is currently being revised and will soon be introduced in the state Senate. Tentatively titled the “Safe Parturition for Inmates Act,” it would prohibit the shackling of inmates in labor during transport to the hospital and at the hospital until the inmate has recovered from delivery. It also provides an exception for women who truly are dangerous or a flight risk. How the bill will fare in committee remains to be seen, but I feel optimistic that with the national momentum on this issue, Colorado could become the eighth state to eliminate this demeaning, potentially harmful and unnecessary practice.
I’ve never done anything like this before, and as a newspaper editor and working journalist, I feel compelled toward full disclosure, hence this column.
While at first I was hesitant to take on an advocacy role in news I was covering, I couldn’t stand the fact that my own state permitted women to give birth in chains. I had to do something about it. Being shackled during labor shouldn’t be part of any woman’s prison sentence. Going to prison means the loss of freedom and independence — not the loss of one’s humanity.
I ask for your support in helping this bill to move forward.