Lawmaker: Stop shackling inmates in labor

Jane Evelyn Atwood/Contact Press Images
Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly


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

“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.

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

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

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.

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