Photo credit: Steven DePolo, Flickr Creative Commons

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By Taylor Knopf

This past winter, two incarcerated women gave birth in a Triangle hospital. In both cases, the women’s hands and feet were restrained to the bed, according to advocates who want to end the shackling of pregnant inmates.

In at least one instance, hospital staff asked that the patient’s handcuffs be removed. The guard in the room responded that the Department of Public Safety’s policies only required the woman be unchained while she was pushing, but not during active labor.

Prison officials revised their restraint policies this spring after advocates wrote a complaint letter about these two incidents. The policy states that women will no longer be shackled during the labor process. Now Democratic lawmakers want to make this new policy state law as well.

A female prisoner inside her prison cell. Photo credit: Officer Bimblebury/ Wikimedia Creative Commons

Sen. Erica Smith (D-Jackson) introduced the Healthy Mother and Child Shackling Prohibition (Senate Bill 786) on Thursday which prohibits the shackling of inmates during pregnancy, labor and delivery and during the postpartum period.

“We have ordinances in North Carolina cities that will not even allow you to tie up a dog,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like giving birth to a child and then being able to bond with your child for the first time, whether you are a free woman or a woman behind bars.”

She said although the prison has this policy in place now, she wants to codify it.

“At the end of the day, simply put, people don’t follow policies,” she said. “People follow laws.”

The bill is sponsored by Democratic women in the House and Senate, but does not have any Republican support at this time.

However, these are issues conservatives are considering.

“As the number of women incarcerated continues to increase in North Carolina, it’s important that prison policies are adapted to provide appropriate health care, particularly for pregnant inmates,” said Tarrah Callahan, executive director of Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform.

“Given that restraining pregnant women presents huge health and safety risks to both mother and child, it is certainly valuable to contemplate changes to these policies,” she said.

Sarah Gillooly, director of political strategy and advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said that shackling a woman during delivery could lead to “blood clots, strokes and other dangerous complications for people and their babies.”

“When someone is handcuffed to a bed, they can’t roll over, can’t get up and walk, can’t walk freely and medical staff don’t have quick, convenient access to the patient,” she said.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson (D- Louisburg) said she believes shackling women during labor is inhumane and unconstitutional for both the mother and child.

“Birth is a difficult and painful experience. It’s something you don’t ever think you’ll do again after you’ve done it the first time,” Richardson said. “I doubt too many women in labor are going to jump up and run anywhere. They do want to complete the process and birth their baby and get rid of that excruciating pain.”

At least 20 other states across the United States have passed similar laws to ban the shackling of pregnant inmates during delivery, according to Gillooly.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Asheville) said she and others filed a bill to ban shackling of pregnant prisoners in 2015, but it failed to gain traction.

“We were told this just doesn’t happen in North Carolina,” she said. “So you can imagine how upset I was. We have a policy in place. So to find out that policy wasn’t universally being implemented was very disappointing.”

Gillooly said that between 30 and 40 pregnant inmates come through the N.C. Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh each year. She couldn’t say how many are in county jails statewide because that data isn’t collected. However, it’s common practice to transfer a pregnant women to NCCIW during her third trimester of pregnancy to give birth there.

Advocates from SisterSong, an Atlanta-based women of color reproductive justice collective, have worked in North Carolina to get the prison policies for shackling changed.

Ash Williams, SisterSong’s North Carolina coordinator, said that this issue disproportionately affects African Americans.

“We know that systemic racism is in our criminal justice system and this results in more people of color being pushed into the system,” Williams said. “This issue falls harder on black people who already struggle with health disparities and higher rates of pregnancy complications and infant mortality.”

In 2016, African-American infants were 2.7 times more likely to die in their first year of life in North Carolina compared to white infants. Those rates are often higher in the rural parts of the state.

“People who are pushed into cages are not disposable. They are deserving of reproductive justice and dignity,” Williams said. “They deserve our support and voice in the system that separates them from their families and from our communities.”

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...