The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Harold Clarke has led the DOC though a forward-thinking policy change that should begin a statewide conversation and passage of legislation before the Virginia General Assembly.
House Bill 1488, a bill that would have limited the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, failed in the House Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee in the 2011 legislative session. However, Director Clarke and staff at the DOC took seriously the conversations sparked by the Committee debate over the bill. Supporters of the bill, which was introduced by Delegate Hope, put pressure on the DOC to change their policies in the absence of legislative action.
As a result, the DOC will now adopt regulations that protect a pregnant inmate’s dignity and health, and the health and safety of her pregnancy. DOC regulations will now state that pregnant inmates will only be retrained during transport outside the prison perimeter by handcuffs alone. Ankle restraints or restraints that in any other way restrict the woman’s movement will not be used during transportation outside the prison, or during labor, delivery and post-partum recovery. Additional restraints can be applied if a determination is made that the inmate is a danger to herself or others, but should additional restraints be used, they must allow for the woman to walk around, stand up, and turn over. If additional restraints are applied, an incident report must be submitted that states the restraints used and the reason why in order to ensure compliance and accountability. Finally, all restraints must be immediately removed if medical staff so direct.
The new DOC regulations are sound public health policy. Restraining a pregnant woman can pose undue health risks to 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. 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.
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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.
Fourteen states currently limit the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, and now Virginia is one of the few states with forward-thinking policies regarding the use of restraints on pregnant inmates.
However, local and regional jails in Virginia are not subject to the DOC regulations, so pregnant women at those facilities are still at risk. Consider the story of Tiarra Fain, a 22 year old political science major in college. While incarcerated at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in February of 2010, Tiarra was eight months pregnant with a high risk pregnancy. She was handcuffed and shackled at the legs during transport to a doctor’s appointment. Tiarra went in to labor on April 18, 2010, shackled by a chain around her waist with two hand cuffs for her wrists connected to the side of the waist chain. At the hospital, leather straps were used to chain Tiarra’s arms and one leg to the hospital bed. During delivery, the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck almost necessitating an emergency c-section. After delivery, Tiarra spent two days in the hospital recovering. However, she was not allowed to get up and walk around, as the doctors had suggested to aid in her recovery. Tiarra was restrained for the entire two days of her recovery post-delivery. Her chains were not removed in order to facilitate breast feeding her baby.
I hope the General Assembly will follow the DOC’s example and develop legislation that will protect some of Virginia’s most vulnerable women from being unnecessarily shackled when they are pregnant. It is a practice that not only violates a woman’s dignity, but can detrimentally affect her health and the health of her pregnancy. Virginia is now presented with an opportunity to become a national leader in supporting pregnant women who are incarcerated. Legislation will demonstrate the state’s commitment to this goal.