A state lawmaker is introducing a bill that would prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates while they are in labor.
The legislation was prompted by a Boulder Weekly investigation and article about the treatment of pregnant prisoners.
Between 50 and 60 women give birth each year while incarcerated in state prisons. The state has no law regulating the shackling of pregnant inmates during labor, so policy is determined separately at the city, county and state levels.
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, says she was not aware of the issue prior to the Feb. 18 story “Pregnant in prison” by Boulder Weekly Editor Pamela White. But now Hudak says she’s convinced that there should be a statewide law prohibiting the practice.
“It’s needed because it’s inhumane treatment of women,” Hudak says of shackling prisoners while they are in labor. “Maybe it’s based on a misunderstanding that men have, who have never been through labor and are generally in charge of the corrections system. One person said the women might escape. I think that shows a misunderstanding of how a woman feels during labor and after delivery.”
Hudak, who labored for 18 hours before undergoing a cesarean section when her child was born, says the idea that a female inmate might escape while in labor is ludicrous.
“At the beginning of labor, contractions can be 20 minutes apart, but you don’t know when the next one is going to come,” she says. “When you’re in that pain, the last thing you want is to be away from a hospital or medical center. And running? Oh, my God. I’m sorry, but it’s just ridiculous to think that a woman could run at the speed necessary to escape. … That’s the time when women feel the most vulnerable and helpless in their entire life, because the body is in control, not you.”
Hudak points out that there is always an armed guard either in the room or just outside the door when prisoners are in labor, which provides sufficient security.
In addition, she says, shackling women — especially around the belly — poses a medical risk and can harm the fetus.
“That’s why maternity clothes are loose-fitting,” Hudak says. “I understand that these women are being punished and incarcerated for a reason, but there’s no reason to punish the unborn child.”
Dr. Eliza Buyers, legislative chair for the Colorado section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), agrees that there are serious health risks associated with shackling inmates in labor.
“It’s medically hazardous,” says Buyers, who is an obstetrician/gynecologist. “From my point of view, that’s the most important part to make clear. Guidelines would help put this practice to an end.”
From the second trimester on, there should be nothing pressing against the belly, she says.
“Even though the fetus is well-protected, there should be no rough pressure at that point,” Buyers says, adding that women even tuck their seat belts under their bellies during late-term pregnancy.
“That is a blatant medical issue,” she says.
In addition, Buyers says women shouldn’t have their legs shackled during labor, because “you need to be able to move your legs and be ready for a rapid delivery.”
Buyers says ACOG is throwing its support behind Hudak’s legislation. ACOG has been involved in the efforts to regulate the practice in most of the states that have passed shackling laws, according to Buyers.
“I think that from the standpoint of a medical provider, someone who delivers babies, practically speaking, when there’s an armed guard at the door, there’s no reason for them to be shackled,” she says.
In Colorado, Buyers says — and especially at Denver Health, where laboring inmates at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility are sent — medical personnel insist that shackles be removed from prisoners in labor the majority of the time.
But practice varies from county to county, and Hudak’s legislation would establish a consistent, statewide standard that all of the state’s law enforcement officers would have to follow.
Buyers points out that without such a law, an armed guard who is new on the job might insist that the shackles stay on during labor.
“There should absolutely be a policy on this,” she says. “Things are done well at Denver Health, but we need this for other areas where this may only come up every five years. … It’s an argument or discussion that shouldn’t need to occur.”
Especially when the woman has had an epidural, Buyers adds. “When I tell people about this, they say, ‘What?’ It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
It can also be a liability issue. “The fact that there hasn’t been a lawsuit [in Colorado] is amazing,” she says.
Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Katherine Sanguinetti told Boulder Weekly that the department’s deputy director, Joanie Shoemaker, is declining to discuss the proposal until the bill is introduced.
“We can’t comment on something we haven’t read,” Sanguinetti says.
But she added that the department probably won’t take a position on the bill.
In an e-mail sent to Boulder Weekly subsequently, she explained that the department is not “comfortable making any statements about the issue, as any comments may be misinterpreted as a stance on the bill. We will be happy to speak with you once the bill has been introduced and we have had time to assess the impact on the department and public safety.”
Hudak is still in the process of identifying a House sponsor for the bill, and she says she may approach female legislators on the House Judiciary Committee.
An early draft of the proposed legislation prohibits outright the use of leg or belly shackles during labor and delivery, and it prohibits the use of other forms of restraint unless there is a compelling reason to believe that the inmate presents an immediate and serious threat of harm to herself or others, or is a substantial flight risk that can’t be reasonably contained by other existing means.
The draft states that the least restrictive form of restraint shall be used and that a corrections official must issue written findings within 10 days regarding the extraordinary circumstances that dictated the use of restraints. That documentation would have to be kept on file and available for public inspection for at least five years, although an inmate’s identifying information would not be made public without that person’s consent, according to the draft.
Chris Carey, director of obstetrics/ gynecology at Denver Health, says that when it comes to shackling, his medical staff are advised to follow the wishes of the armed guard, since the guard knows whether the prisoner is dangerous or a flight risk, for instance.
“We don’t know who’s in for a bad check and who’s in for cannibalism or something,” Carey told Boulder Weekly.
His view is that restraints should be used in certain circumstances. “There are dangerous things in the hospital,” he says. “There are sharp things on the table. In general, to have a rule that we shackle all women in labor is bad, but maybe we should have some exceptions codified.”
Carey also says that escapes are not unheard of. When he was working at the University of Oklahoma, for instance, a pregnant inmate escaped from a medical center there after pretending that she was in labor. She was eventually caught when she checked into a hospital after her real labor began.
“It’s not inconceivable to me that someone in early labor, who hasn’t had an epidural, could escape,” Carey says.
He adds that the decision on whether to shackle should be made by law enforcement — maybe not the guard, but someone at the corrections agency who can determine which prisoners should be shackled and which should not.
Carey says he recently performed a surgery on a female prisoner who was guarded by an officer who insisted on keeping the inmate in his sight at all times — even when she was under anesthesia.
He says he personally would support the proposed legislation, given that it allows for restraints to be used when necessary.
"Shackling women who are giving birth because they are detained behind bars, even when they are not convicted of anything, is an incredible attack on a woman's reproductive health and our human rights," says Lorena Garcia of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). "COLOR has been the lead organization on this issue in Colorado, and is excited to see that this issue is now getting the attention under the dome and in the public that it deserves."
Hudak acknowledges that some may not have much sympathy for incarcerated women, because they are in prison for a reason.
“Because these women are being confined, people are unlikely to be sympathetic to their concerns,” she says.
“But none of these women are on death row. They’re all going to get out and hopefully reunited with their children. It’s already a bad situation, because they don’t get to bond with their baby. We have to have sympathy for human beings, regardless of the crime they committed.
“The needs of women inmates are different than the needs of male inmates. The system has to adapt.”