Virginia’s Board of Corrections this month announced the adoption of new regulatory language to restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated pregnant women, a decision met with praise by a coalition of women’s rights advocates, prison reform groups and religious organizations.
“Many in the medical community, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, acknowledge that the use of restraints may cause serious health risks to both the mother and baby, especially with each advancing stage of pregnancy. These proposed regulations provide reasonable and compassionate reform essential for the full health and well-being of both the mother and baby,” said in a statement the coalition, which includes organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Justice Center and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Those health risks include: pre-eclampsia (a condition causing a pregnant woman to have high blood pressure), premature birth, and, of course, increased risk of falls that could seriously injure the fetus.
A Virginia House bill to limit restraints on all pregnant inmates in the state did not even make it to a vote in the 2011 legislative session. While both the BOC and state Department of Corrections now ban the practice, opponents of the practice say legislation is still needed to enact a pubic reporting requirement that would mandate prison staff to report instances when inmates are restrained under exceptions included in the new regulations.*
Believe it or not, it is extremely common for incarcerated women to be shackled for the duration of their pregnancies – and even during childbirth – in prisons across the country. The practice is permissible in at least 32 states, even when the women in question are only being held for immigration offenses.
In Virginia, the new regulations state that pregnant women can be restrained only during transport outside of prison. And in that case, they can be handcuffed only in the front unless they pose a serious danger or flight risk.
But while the new guidelines prohibit ankle restraints or any other kind that could restrict a woman’s movement during labor or delivery, they do not specifically forbid handcuffs or other arm restraints.
The ACLU points to the case of 22-year-old Tiarra Fain as a prime example of the serious physical risks posed to women who are severely restrained during childbirth. Fain, who was eight months pregnant when she was arrested and convicted on forgery and other charges, was reportedly shackled by a chain around her waist, with her wrists handcuffed and connected to the waist chain, when she went into labor in 2010.
“At the hospital, leather straps were used to chain Tiarra’s arms and one leg to the hospital bed,” Katherine Greenier, the director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU of Virginia, told CBS News earlier this year.
Fain alleges she was also restrained during two days of recovery, when she was forbidden from getting up and walking around as doctors suggested. She said the shackles were not removed to allow her to breast-feed her baby, all charges that have been denied by the Virginia Sheriffs Association.
While other states such as Texas, Vermont and Colorado have laws that discourage the practice of shackling female inmates during labor, most states do not have laws flat-out forbidding it.
Even states that do have anti-shackling laws have not been able to completely eliminate the practice. For instance, in Illinois – one of the states where it's actually illegal – this year 80 female inmates filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they were shackled during birth and recovery. They eventually won a $4.1 million settlement.
Fortunately, more states seem to be abandoning a practice that opponents say is tantamount to torture. In September, California also passed a law prohibiting the use of "leg irons, waist chains, and handcuffs behind the body on women who are pregnant or who are in recovery following the birth of a child.” It also requires that shackles be removed for emergency medical treatment.
California reportedly has the third-highest number of incarcerated pregnant women in the nation. Most are serving sentences of less than one year, usually for first-time, non-violent offenses.
“Pregnant women are the most vulnerable and the least threatening in the prison system and should rarely, if ever, be restrained,” Alicia Walters, a reproductive justice advocate with the ACLU of Northern California, wrote after the law’s passage.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said only state prisons, not state and regional jails, were subject to the anti-shackling rules. In fact, the BOC had jurisdiction over state and regional jails, while the DOC controls state prisons.