On Feb. 4, the Virginia General Assembly's House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee defeated a bill that would have limited the use of restraints on pregnant inmates. HB 1488, introduced by Delegate Patrick A. Hope, specifically sought to limit the restraint of pregnant inmates during labor, transport to a medical facility, delivery, or postpartum recovery in the commonwealth’s correctional facilities.
While the Committee killed the bill, the concern raised by debate on the issue prompted the Committee Chairwoman, Delegate Beverly Sherwood, to send a letter to the Department of Corrections (DOC), suggesting that the DOC review current policies and regulations concerning the restraint of pregnant inmates. A mere suggestion to review current policies does not provide adequate protection for the women in Virginia’s correctional facilities. House Bill 1488 would have afforded real protection for some of Virginia’s most vulnerable women from a practice that not only violates a woman’s dignity, but can detrimentally affect her health and the health of her pregnancy.
State corrections officials report that restraints are rarely used on women in labor – a positive step. However, the Virginia Department of Corrections has not made available their written policy on the use of restraints or data on the number of pregnant prisoners who have been restrained. It has been informally reported that only front end restraints are used on pregnant inmates, but without the ability to review a stated policy, there is little accountability for this claim.
Further, the officer in charge retains discretion over whether to use restraints. Allowing officers to decide when to shackle pregnant women is highly problematic: officers do not have medical training and are not qualified to judge whether restraints will jeopardize the health of the woman and/or her child. When so little is known about when and what type of restraints are used on pregnant inmates, legislation can provide much needed accountability and put a stop to the practice of shackling.
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Preventing shackling of pregnant women is sound public health policy. Restraining a woman who is pregnant can pose unique health risks to the woman and her pregnancy. Prisoners and detainees who are restrained face an increased potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall, which can be harmful to the health of the woman and her pregnancy.
Unrestrained movement is especially critical during labor, delivery, and the postpartum recovery. Women often need to move around during labor and recovery, including moving their legs as part of the birthing process, and restraining a pregnant woman can interfere with the medical staff’s ability to appropriately assist in childbirth.
Further, major national correctional and medical associations oppose the shackling of pregnant women. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshal Service, the American Correctional Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all recognized that shackling women during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery is unnecessary and dangerous to a woman’s health and well being.
Preventing shackling is a sound legal policy for Virginia. It is cruel and unusual punishment—in violation of the Virginia and federal constitutions—to shackle a pregnant woman during labor and delivery. Applying such restraints demonstrates a deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs, and runs counter to long-established Supreme Court precedent protecting prisoners’ 8th Amendments rights.
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Restricting the use of restraints on pregnant women prisoners will not jeopardize the safety of correctional or medical staff. The vast majority of female prisoners in Virginia are non-violent offenders who pose a low security risk, particularly during labor and postpartum recovery. There are no documented instances of women in labor or during delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff.
Until legislative change is made in an effort to protect the health and dignity of the incarcerated mother and her fetus, pregnant prisoners will face the possibility of unnecessary and dangerous health risks, degrading treatment, and little accountability will be placed on the Department of Corrections.