Under Pressure, NC Prisons Revise Policy on Restraining Pregnant Detainees | News

Under Pressure, NC Prisons Revise Policy on Restraining Pregnant Detainees


Amid a statewide campaign to ensure pregnant inmates are not restrained during birth and postpartum recovery, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has updated its policies.

Before the update, DPS policy said no inmate should be restrained “during delivery” but didn’t define “delivery.” The revised language states that any detainee in labor —beginning with contractions — “should not be placed in any restraints, including wrist restraints, unless there are reasonable grounds to believe the offender presents an immediate, serious threat of hurting herself, staff, or others, including her fetus or child, or that she presents an immediate, credible risk of escape that cannot be reasonably contained through other methods.” 

The state’s policies relating to pregnant detainees have been under scrutiny since SisterSong, which works for reproductive justice for indigenous women and women of color, alerted officials that it had heard from a medical provider that two women in the custody of the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women were restrained during labor at an outside facility, despite state policy.

SisterSong is partnering with other organizations including the ACLU of North Carolina, MomsRising and NARAL Pro-Choice NC to call for an end to shackling of people in labor and postpartum recovery in the custody of North Carolina correctional facilities. The groups have been holding information sessions on the issue around state and have launched an online petition.

At an information session in Durham Monday night, Omisade Burney-Scott, director of Strategic Partnerships and Advocacy for SisterSong, said the revisions don’t address her concerns about shackling in North Carolina correctional facilities. Burney-Scott said SisterSong knew DPS was revising its policy, but didn’t know those revisions would come Monday.

“We are very clear that at no point during a person’s pregnancy should they be shackled,” she said.

Ash Williams, North Carolina organizer for SisterSong, said the practice of shackling can’t be disentangled from larger systems of white supremacy, reproductive oppression and mass incarceration.

“We don’t want an alternative to shackling. We want an alternative to prison, which makes the shackling possible,” they said.

Procedures for restraining pregnant women are contained in DPS’ policies on transporting offenders and the use of force and restraints. The updates insert a section specifically on pregnant detainees into each of those policies.

DPS spokesperson Pamela Walker says the new policies were signed today after “weeks of work.” Staff consulted the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association.

“The Department of Public Safety, Division of Prisons takes very seriously the health and well-being of all individuals confined within our facilities and appreciates the advocacy groups bringing to our attention their concerns regarding policies and practices specific to pregnant inmates,” Walker said in an email. “The revised policy balances the well-being and safety of the pregnant inmate with the safety and security of our officers, medical staff and the public at large.”

The update also revises language on when inmates can be restrained after giving birth. Under the new policy, detainees "identified by medical staff as in post-partum recuperation" or in "initial bonding with the newborn child, including nursing and skin to skin contact" should not be placed in any restraints, unless they pose a danger or flight risk. The old policy said women "shall be restrained after birth" but "not have her hands restrained while bonding and feeding the baby."

Burney-Scott said the policies don’t “address the entirety of labor and delivery” and don’t go far enough in ensuring that women recovering from childbirth aren’t restrained.

“Post-partum is the most dangerous time,” she said. “The incidents of death happen immediately after birth.” (Read more about maternal deaths in the U.S. in award-winning reporting by ProPublica and NPR).

Both the previous and new policies said pregnant inmates can be handcuffed while being transported, but the new versions specify that wrist restraints should be secured in front of rather than behind the woman "in such a way that the pregnant offender may be able to protect herself and the fetus in the event of a fall."

Among advocates’ concerns are that the updated policies still allow for a pregnant person to be restrained if it is determined that the person poses a danger or a flight risk. A decision to restrain someone could be influenced by bias, or just the fact that incarceration is, inherently, about keeping people confined, speakers said Monday.

“It’s important to note that this is an internal Department of Public Safety policy and not law,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina., “ … It seems like the loopholes and the exceptions still have the possibility to swallow the rule.”

Pregnant detainees in county jails are also sent to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where they receive pre-natal care, Walker says.

According to the News & Observer, eighty-one North Carolina women gave birth while incarcerated last year and there are currently fifty pregnant women in the state prison system. Research on pregnant women in jails and prisons statewide is scarce, but it's estimated that about five percent of women entering state prisons and six percent of women entering local jails are pregnant.

Twenty-two states have laws prohibiting the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women. North Carolina law doesn't address this. SisterSong and other groups involved in the #EndShacklingNC campaign want to change that. They are working to learn more about the treatment of pregnant incarcerated people in North Carolina, and identify people who may have been shackled themselves.

“We felt like the shackling issue was a portal into a larger issue of what exactly is happening to folks who are incarcerated,” Burney-Scott says.

Shackling during child birth can harm both mothers and babies, and interfere with medical procedures, particularly when emergencies arise. The practice is opposed by international human rights groups and, in the U.S., has been successfully challenged as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons ended the practice of shackling women during childbirth in federal facilities in 2008. Last year, Democratic lawmakers introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which among other measures, would prohibit the use of restraints on any pregnant federal prisoners.

The American Correctional Association also advises that the use of restraints be limited "in the last trimester of pregnancy and/or during labor and deliver." The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says "women should never be shackled during evaluation for labor or labor and delivery." The American Medical Association calls restraining a woman during childbirth "a barbaric practice that needlessly inflicts excruciating pain and humiliation."

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