Giving birth in chains





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

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