Most states ban shackling pregnant women in custody, yet many report being restrained

Ashley Denney was about seven months pregnant when she was handcuffed during an arrest in Carroll County, Georgia in 2022. Officers shackled her despite the fact that the state prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant women in custody starting in the second trimester.

It happened again in early July, she said.

“I requested that the officer pull over. I’m not supposed to be restrained. “I’m pregnant,” Denney announced. She was nearing the end of her first trimester at the time, but she thought her pregnancy was further along. According to a Carrollton Police Department official who reviewed video footage of the arrest, the arresting officers were unaware she was pregnant.

Shackling pregnant women, according to medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is unethical and unsafe because it increases the risk of falls, impedes medical care, and endangers the fetus.

According to a Johns Hopkins University research group, approximately 40 states, including Georgia, have passed laws restricting the use of restraints such as handcuffs, leg restraints, and belly chains on pregnant people in law enforcement custody. Bipartisan support has been shown for laws that seek to improve the treatment of pregnant women in jails and prisons, such as the First Step Act, which was passed in 2018 and limits the use of restraints on pregnant people in federal custody. Nonetheless, advocates say they continue to receive reports of law enforcement and hospital personnel disregarding such prohibitions and allowing pregnant women to be chained, handcuffed, or otherwise restrained.

Confusion over the laws, a lack of sanctions for violations, and large loopholes all contribute to pregnant women being shackled in custody. However, due to limited data collection and little independent oversight, it is nearly impossible to obtain an accurate picture of the prevalence.

“When people see laws like these, they say, ‘check.'” “They don’t know how they’re being implemented or if they’re producing the desired results,” said Ashley Lovell, co-director of the Alabama Prison Birth Project, which works with pregnant inmates. She described these laws as “words on paper” in the absence of oversight. “They don’t mean anything.”

According to estimates based on 2017 data from research led by Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University who studies pregnancy care in jails and prisons. “The fact that we don’t know what is happening is part of the story itself,” she added.

Nonetheless, reports of shackling continue to emerge, frequently making local headlines.

According to Pamela Winn, founder of RestoreHER US.America, a group that works with people involved in the criminal justice system, a 32-week-pregnant Georgia woman was shackled for hours while waiting for a medical appointment and during transport in January. The woman declined to be identified because she is in state custody and is afraid of retaliation. She claimed that her handcuffs were only removed at the request of medical personnel.

Her experience was shared by women in law enforcement custody across the country.

Minnesota passed an anti-shackling bill in 2014, but six years later, a suburban Minneapolis woman sued Hennepin County following a wrongful arrest in which she was shackled while working — an incident first reported by local media.

Moreover, despite Texas’ shackling ban, an officer in Harris County, which includes Houston, chained Amy Growcock’s ankle to a bench in a courthouse holding area for hours in August 2022.

“It was pretty painful,” said Growcock, who was eight months pregnant and worried about her swollen leg losing circulation.

Shackling bans have collided with the realities of the country’s complex web of penal institutions. Thousands of county jails, state and federal prisons, and private facilities with varying policies house millions of people. According to Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, facilities frequently operate with little or no independent oversight.

Some ACLU chapters have received complaints about violations of state laws prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons. According to complaints and oversight reports, officials are usually left to interpret the law and police their own behavior, according to Kendrick.

Georgia law prohibits restraining pregnant women during their second and third trimesters, but allows restraints in certain circumstances immediately following childbirth. The state Department of Corrections has an anti-shackling policy in place for pregnant women in state custody, and violations must be reported. However, in response to KFF Health News’ records request, agency officials stated that there were no incident reports involving shackling in 2022 and through late October.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association requests that county jails voluntarily submit shackling data, but only 74 of the 142 jails did so in 2022. There were 1,016 pregnant women in those jails, but only two inmates were restrained in the immediate postpartum period.

According to association officials, shackling is uncommon. “Our jail people have a lot of common sense and compassion and would never intentionally hurt someone,” said Bill Hallsworth, the association’s director of jail and court services. Many rural jails lack medical personnel to immediately confirm a pregnancy, he added.

According to public information officer Sgt. Meredith Hoyle Browning, the Carrollton Police Department, whose officers handcuffed Denney, the law did not apply during her arrest, before her booking into a facility.

“It appears to me that the people we are asking to enforce this bill have taken a broad interpretation of it,” said Georgia state Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican who authored the state’s bill. Cooper stated that she had not been informed of any incidents, but that if pregnant incarcerated women continue to be shackled, legislators may need to revise the law.

Furthermore, some incidents in which jailors shackle pregnant women fall within legal loopholes. Officers in Texas, like officers in many other states, can make exceptions when they feel threatened or see a flight risk. According to an April report by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, 111 pregnant women were restrained in jail last year. Women were shackled during transport in more than half of the cases, despite the fact that this is when they are most likely to fall.

The Texas commission has sent memos to jails that violate the shackling policy, but documents reviewed by KFF Health News show that the agency did not sanction the jails.

Most states do not provide funding to educate correctional officers and hospital personnel about the laws. According to a 2019 study, more than 80% of perinatal nurses reported that the pregnant prisoners they care for were sometimes or always shackled, and the vast majority were unaware of laws governing the use of restraints, as well as a nurses’ association’s stance against their use.

Even when medical professionals are opposed to restraints, they generally defer to law enforcement.

According to Kimberly Golden-Benner, the hospital’s director of business development, marketing, and communications, Southern Regional Medical Center, located just south of Atlanta, handles pregnant incarcerated patients from the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Clayton County Jail, and other facilities. When pregnant incarcerated patients arrive at the center for labor and delivery, clinicians request that officers remove restraints, according to her. However, she stated that it is still up to the officers’ discretion.

A request for comment was not returned by the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. According to Joan Heath, public affairs director for the state Department of Corrections, the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated people is limited to only extreme cases, such as when there is an imminent escape risk. According to her, all staff members at women’s facilities are required to complete an annual policy training course.

Advocates say that strengthening the laws will necessitate funding for implementation, such as developing model policies for hospitals and law enforcement personnel, as well as ongoing training, tighter reporting requirements, and sanctions for violations.

“The laws are a necessary step, and they draw attention to the issue,” said Sufrin, the Johns Hopkins professor. They are, however, “by no means enough to ensure the practice doesn’t happen.”

Winn wants states to allow pregnant women to bond out of jail and have their sentences postponed until after they give birth. In Colorado, a law that encourages courts to consider alternative sentences for pregnant defendants went into effect in August. This year, Florida lawmakers considered but did not pass a similar bill.

The use of restraints provides insight into the mistreatment of pregnant women in jails and prisons.

Denney claimed that in August, she was given medication for depression and anxiety instead of nausea, which worsened her morning sickness and caused her to miss a meal.

According to Brad Robinson, chief deputy of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, there is no record of Denney being given the wrong medication.

“They don’t take you seriously,” Denney said of her pregnancy care while incarcerated. “They should at least make sure the babies are all right.”

Growcock claimed that her initial shackling in Houston was the first indication that officers were unprepared to deal with pregnant women. She gave birth in a jail cell and almost lost her baby boy less than two weeks after her arrest. Growcock, who photographed her ankle in restraints, was shackled, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. According to a memo sent to the Harris County Jail by the commission, the jail overseer admitted no other wrongdoing in her case.

“I felt like if I wasn’t getting treated right already, then the whole experience was going to be bad,” she told me. “And it was.”

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