Boulder Weekly investigation ends the practice of shackling inmates in labor

Pamela White

Ryan Owens caught her first case at age 27 after becoming addicted to methamphetamine. She was sent into treatment, but relapsed almost immediately after graduating. When she got into trouble again, she went on the run, afraid of being sent to jail.

A mother with two children, she was also pregnant.

She wasn’t on the run long, however, when law enforcement caught up with her. She spent her first five days in Denver City Jail heavily pregnant and sleeping on the floor on a dirty blanket. Then she was transferred to Denver County Jail, where she stayed for a time, before being transferred to El Paso County on her due date — and then back again.

During transport, she was kept in full restraints, including ankle shackles and a belly belt, an excruciating experience. Though she begged the guards to remove some of the shackles, they refused, instead joking about whether or not the trip would make her go into labor.

“It hurt so bad,” she says. “It was miserable. I cried the whole way down there and the whole way back.”

She was in Denver County Jail when she finally went into labor. She was brought to the hospital in wrist and ankle irons, then chained by her ankle to a hospital bed. The humiliation was extreme. Worse was her inability to make use of the comforts available to other women to help ease the pain of labor, such as the hottub.

The experience, she told the Colorado State Senate and House judiciary committees, left her feeling that she’d been treated “like an animal.”

I listened to Owens testify at the House Judiciary Committee hearing and watched as her testimony resonated with others in the audience, including a former inmate who had tears running down her face. And I feel great satisfaction in knowing that what happened to Owens will never happen again — at least not in Colorado.

On Thursday, May 27, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 193, nicknamed “the shackling bill,” into law.

The bill was introduced and carried by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who learned about the shackling of inmates in labor from a Boulder Weekly investigation into the treatment of pregnant inmates (“Pregnant in prison,” cover story, Feb. 18). Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, sponsored the bill in the House.

When the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, it will regulate the use of shackles on inmates throughout pregnancy, prohibiting the use of shackles on inmates during labor and delivery, except under extreme circumstances where an inmate poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a threat of escape.

With the governor’s signature, Colorado became the ninth state to prohibit the shackling of inmates in labor.

For former inmates, like Owens, who gave birth while in custody, the new law offers a chance to heal one of the worst memories from their time behind bars.

“It’s so great,” she says. “That’s a memory that will never go away. That’s how my son came into this world. I take full responsibility for the reasons that I was there, but the fact that nobody else has to go through that is huge to me. My [labor and birth] is done and over with. It is what it is. But the fact that this is a law now — it does heal.”

For the coalition of women’s groups and medical professionals who pushed for the bill’s passage, the new law marks a leap forward for the medical treatment of women inmates and for human rights in the state’s jails and prisons.

“This takes us out of the dark ages in the Department of Corrections and our jails,” said Sen. Hudak, “and it’s long overdue.”

For me, the journalist who investigated the issue and then took the unusual step of carrying it to Capitol Hill and even writing the first draft of the bill, the new law serves as validation for what I’ve always believed — that newspapers are still capable of bringing about significant change.

Disbelief and shame

The toughest thing about launching Senate Bill 193 was lawmakers’ disbelief. Upon reading through the bill for the first time, many responded like Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.

“Do we know this really happens?” he asked.

King went on to become a vocal supporter of the bill when he learned that somewhere between 50 and 60 inmates were giving birth in chains each year in Colorado.

As my investigation revealed, how and when inmates were shackled depended entirely on where they were being held. In Boulder County, inmates were not shackled during labor, but in nearby Denver County, inmates were being shackled to their hospital beds by a long, heavy chain fixed to one ankle. In some mountain jurisdictions, women were actually being given furlough from jail to give birth and were allowed to have family with them in the hospital. DOC inmates, on the other hand, were being taken to the hospital in wrist restraints and sometimes ankle shackles and belly belts and were shackled to their beds by one extremity throughout labor — depending on which nurse and correctional officer were on duty.

Once these facts were laid out, most lawmakers were astonished and even ashamed.

Hudak says that compared to some other bills she’s carried, SB 193 wasn’t a difficult bill to explain to people. During the bill’s first hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hudak asked her fellow senators if any of them had ever given birth or been present when their spouses gave birth. She then asked whether they could imagine themselves or their wives trying to escape.

“They finished the sentence before it came out of my mouth, and they really understood that it’s ridiculous that a woman in labor would try to escape or would be successful if she tried,” Hudak says.

SB 193 prohibits the use of belly shackles and ankle irons on pregnant inmates at any point during their pregnancy, out of concern that shackling in this manner poses a danger to the fetus, uterus, and placenta should the belt put pressure on the inmate’s pregnant abdomen or should the inmate trip and fall.

The bill also prohibits the use of any kind of shackles on inmates during labor and delivery, except in extreme cases when an inmate poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a serious flight risk. If they are shackled, it must be done using the least restrictive restraint necessary for maintaining safety, and the incident must be detailed and saved as a public record.

Further, the bill enables inmates to have a member of the medical staff present during her strip-search on return to jail or prison.

The bill moved swiftly through the legislative process. It received the unanimous support of the Senate and passed with a single “no” vote in the House, cast by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

“The only hesitation came from the Department of Corrections,” Hudak says.

DOC, which runs the state’s prisons, originally took a neutral position, but perhaps showed its true stance by attaching a significant cost to the bill, claiming that they would need to hire more guards if they left laboring inmates unshackled.

But the fiscal note was struck from the bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing in which Sen. Bob Bacon, R-Fort Collins, admitted to feeling ashamed that Colorado needed a bill like SB 193.

“I was particularly pleased in the Senate that they took the fiscal note off because they didn’t believe that additional guards would be necessary,” Hudak says.

the fiscal note was removed, however, DOC took a more aggressive stance
against the bill. There were indications that its representatives would
ask the governor for a veto and look for ways to stall the bill until
it died if it weren’t amended.

Claire Levy worked with DOC to craft a version of the bill they could
support, removing language from the House version that would have
prohibited shackling inmates during transportation to or from a medical
facility for childbirth, as well as during the immediate postpartum
recovery period. Had it not been for those changes, Levy says the bill
might have faced an uphill battle with the governor.

sorry that the Department of Corrections was successful in weakening
the bill in the House,” Hudak says. “They were more successful in
convincing the representatives that shackling was necessary during
transport. I still don’t believe it is. But as is common in the
legislative process, you might not get everything you want, but this
goes a long way.”

Because of Levy’s efforts, DOC testified in favor of the bill.

Although the law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, DOC plans to implement new procedures before then.

you are aware, our procedures were in place and different than some
other jurisdictions prior to passing of the bill,” Joanie Shoemaker,
deputy director of prisons for DOC, wrote in an e-mail to Boulder
Weekly. “We have begun the process of changing policy and designing the
tracking tool. We will implement as soon as that is finalized even if
the bill has not been enacted.”

Reproductive justice

Julie Krow has heard
more about women’s experiences being shackled during labor than most
people. Krow oversees The Haven, a residential substance-abuse
treatment program for pregnant and parenting women. About 70 percent of
the clientele at The Haven have entered the program after being
diverted from the criminal justice system or after being released from
jail or prison.

Concerned about the
treatment of inmates during labor, Krow pulled together a focus group
of Haven clients who had given birth while in custody and asked them to
share their experiences.

“To me, the thing
that was really telling was that the experiences were all over the
map,” Krow says. “Some of the women were traumatized by the experience
and had had a terrible experience. Some people from some of the rural
mountain towns said it wasn’t like that for them.”

seemed to Krow that such a wide discrepancy in how inmates were treated
meant that there was room for compassion — and consistency — in
shackling policies.

testified in favor of SB 193 and discussed the bill with her clients
during the legislative process. She was pleased to hear that the
governor had signed the bill and said her clients are also happy to
learn that the shackling of inmates during labor is coming to an end in

For Dr.
Eliza Buyers, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Denver and the
legislative chair of the Colorado Section of the American Congress of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the new law means safer pregnancies
and births for inmates and the achievement of a legislative goal here
in Colorado.

issue of shackling pregnant and laboring women is one that the American
Congress of OB/GYNs has been talking about on a national level for well
over five years,” Buyers says. “Providers have become involved in this
issue because, beyond the physically demeaning aspects of this
practice, there are also serious medical concerns.”

concerns include everything from possible damage to the fetus, uterus
or placenta caused by pressure from belly shackles to delays in
emergency treatment caused by an inability to remove shackles quickly

“Labor is
a dynamic, physical and, at times, very rapid process,” Buyers says.
“The use of restraints on pregnant inmates is medically hazardous, and
prohibiting this practice is necessary for health providers to deliver
safe medical care.”

had been hoping to present a bill in Colorado next year, but when
Buyers heard a bill was being drafted, she immediately became involved.
She brought a medical perspective to the drafting process and testified
at both the Senate and House judiciary hearings.

Garcia, director of policy and organizing for COLOR, the Colorado
Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, also had
plans to push for a ban on the shackling of inmates in labor next year.
When she learned that an effort was under way this year, she became
actively involved in the process of drafting and lobbying for the bill.

mission is reproductive justice, and being able to give birth in a
humane fashion no matter the location is a piece of reproductive
justice,” Garcia says. “With the passage of SB 193, it brings us a step
closer now that even women who are incarcerated can also have
reproductive justice.”

Garcia says she was surprised and gratified when the bill received such overwhelming bipartisan support.

very pleased to see that the state of Colorado has a vested interest in
ensuring that one of our most vulnerable populations is treated fairly,
and that population is incarcerated women,” she says.

says she also finds hope in the fact that, in the end, it wasn’t a
lobbyist or activist group that brought the issue of shackling pregnant
inmates to the table.

think this process being driven by a citizen and a constituent proves
that there is value in our everyday Coloradans advocating for rights,”
she says.

Owens, who graduates from treatment later this month and whose son
recently turned 2, testifying before state lawmakers was an empowering

was extremely empowering, even though my hands were shaking,” she says.
“The only thing that kept going through my head was that people need to
hear what really happens. People
need to hear from the inside. So many times people don’t hear people
like us.”

This time, thanks in part to Owens, people in the highest
levels of state government got the message loud and clear.

think the fact that another woman won’t have to feel [what I felt] is
amazing,” she says. “It’s huge to me. It’s awesome. It really is.”


How the law has changed

Before Senate Bill 193

• Each jurisdiction had its own policy regarding the shackling of inmates during pregnancy, transport, labor and delivery.

• Pregnant inmates could be shackled with ankle shackles, belly belts and wrist shackles.

• Many inmates were kept in shackles throughout their labors.

• No medical personnel were present during inmates’ strip-search upon return to jail or prison.

Because records pertaining to pregnancy and birth are private medical
records, it was difficult to determine exactly how pregnant women were
being treated.

After Senate Bill 193

• There is one
statewide policy regulating the shackling of inmates throughout
pregnancy, including transport, labor and delivery.

• Belly belts and ankle shackles are banned for use on pregnant inmates.

•When shackling pregnant inmates, officers must use the least restrictive restraint possible for maintaining safety.

No inmate may be shackled during labor or delivery unless she presents
an immediate danger to herself or others or poses a serious threat of
escape, and then she may only be shackled by the least restrictive
restraint necessary.

An inmate may choose to have a member of the jail or prison’s medical
staff with her when she is strip-searched after returning from giving

• Any use
of shackles on an inmate during labor or delivery must be recorded
(without identifying medical information) and maintained as a public
record for five years.