Legislature fails to act on policy to ease constraints on female prisoners
By Zack Budryk
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Local jails and regional prisons in Virginia can continue to shackle female inmates during childbirth – a practice that Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, says is appalling.
Hope sponsored a bill this legislative session to prohibit the shackling of women prisoners while in labor or giving birth. However, the bill is dead for this session after failing to make it out of a subcommittee last week.
But Hope isn’t giving up on getting correctional facilities to stop the practice.
“Having been the father of three girls, I couldn’t understand why they felt the need to do that,” he said.
“And as I dug into the policies and what motivated the prisons and the local and regional jails to do this, [I found that] they really didn’t have a policy; they just shackled everyone … I thought there ought to be at least some law, something codified, that says they should use the least restrictive restraints … and use their discretion to make sure that safety’s not at risk.”
Katherine Greenier of the Virginia ACLU said the health risks posed by shackled delivery are well documented.
“Pregnancy can create problems with balance that are exacerbated by shackling,” said Greenier, whose Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project lobbied extensively for House Bill 836 before its demise.
“Leg and wrist restraints increase the likelihood that a pregnant woman could trip, and they compromise her ability to brace against a fall, risking miscarriage and injury.”
Ramey Connelly said she finds the practice abhorrent regardless of the health risks.
“I … believe that shackling women during labor is a violation of the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Connelly, a women’s rights activist in Richmond.
“The process of birth is a natural one, and women are physiologically inclined to move during labor. There is extensive documentation that, given the freedom to do so, women will move into birthing positions which are most conducive to a safe, healthy labor and childbirth.”
The Virginia ACLU was joined in lobbying for the bill by several women’s rights and prison reform groups. The ACLU, which is known for supporting liberal causes, also found an unlikely ally: the Family Foundation of Virginia, which ordinarily supports conservative and religious causes.
Hope said it was natural for his bill to attract support from groups with different political views.
“If a woman wants to have a pregnancy, and she wants it to be carried out, then we need to make sure that it’s carried out in a safe and healthy manner. That’s why [pro-choice groups] are at the table,” Hope said.
“Virginia Family Foundation’s at the table for similar reasons. They see the pregnancy as a life, and we need to make sure that that pregnancy is protected so it is safe, and it is healthy, and everyone’s happy.”
HB 836 had been assigned to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee. On Feb. 9, a subcommittee of that panel tabled the bill. As a result, the full House of Delegates did not have an opportunity to act on the measure. Any bill that did not clear its house of origin by Tuesday was declared dead for the session.
Hope said he plans to reintroduce the issue next session. In the meantime, he said, he is exploring non-legislative ways of achieving the same goal.
“The legislation that I introduced is already the procedure in the [state] prison system,” Hope said. “However, at the Board of Corrections level, in the regional jails … that’s not policy yet.”
“They put out a notice for rulemaking in January, and I suspect that that will be played out over the next 12 to 18 months. When the regulatory process plays out, I’m going to be watching that process closely to make sure that there are not so many holes in [shackling regulations] that this doesn’t become like Swiss cheese.”
Connelly said it was encouraging to hear the issue raised in the first place.
“It is always beneficial to keep the conversation going. That is one of the many tragedies of the ‘correctional’ system – that the people within them are locked away and essentially forgotten,” she said.
“We cannot let these conversations die, because when they do, the people who are suffering these monumental injustices fade away into the background.”
More about House Bill 836
Here is the full text of the bill:
“No state, regional, local, or juvenile correctional facility shall use restraints on any prisoner who is pregnant during labor, transport to a medical facility, delivery, or postpartum recovery unless the warden, superintendent, or jailor finds there is a compelling reason to believe that the prisoner poses serious harm to herself or others, is a flight risk, or cannot be reasonably restrained by other means. Such facility shall use the least restrictive restraints necessary on any inmate in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.”
To comment on the legislation, visit the Richmond Sunlight website:www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2012/hb836