NC prisons change restraint policy for pregnant inmates after complaints

Barbed wire fences surround the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
Barbed wire fences surround the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. N&O file photo

North Carolina prisons no longer will permit the use of leg or waist restraints on pregnant inmates after a recent complaint that two women were shackled to a hospital bed while in labor.

Kenneth Lassiter, the prisons director, signed a new policy on Monday, nearly two months after SisterSong, an Atlanta-based organization that promotes reproductive rights for women of color, and groups from North Carolina sent a letter to the state Department of Public Safety questioning the treatment of the two unnamed inmates.

The policy still allows for the cuffing of a pregnant inmate's wrists while in transport, but only in a way that allows her to protect herself or the fetus if she were to fall.

Once contractions begin and an inmate is in labor, the policy states, wrist restraints must come off "unless there are reasonable grounds to believe the offender presents an immediate, serious threat of hurting herself, staff or others" or if she presents "an immediate, credible risk of escape" that cannot otherwise be thwarted.

If an officer uses restraints during labor, according to the new policy, the associate warden for custody must be notified immediately and an incident report completed.

Officers also are not to use handcuffs or other restraints on an inmate during the mother's initial bonding with her newborn, including nursing and skin-to-skin contact.

Last year, there were 81 inmates who delivered babies while incarcerated.

Pregnant offenders housed in county jails routinely are sent to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

As of mid-February, there were 50 pregnant offenders housed in the state prison system, according to Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety.

The policy revisions clarify what has been in place since 2015, according to Walker. Inmates were not to be restrained “while in delivery,” according to the old policy, which left it ambiguous about precisely when that meant restraints should come off.

Prison officials consulted with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association to help develop a revised policy intended to "balance the well-being and safety of the pregnant inmate with the safety and security of our officers, medical staff and the public at large,” Walker said.

The focus on North Carolina comes as part of a global movement in recent years to end the shackling of pregnant prisoners and offer better treatment in general to female inmates.

More than 20 states have passed laws that prohibit the shackling of people in childbirth, SisterSong representative Omisade Burney-Scott said when calling attention to the North Carolina complaint

A group of Democratic U.S. senators has introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which would ban the shackling of pregnant women across the country if adopted.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has stated its opposition to using restraints during childbirth. “Physical restraints interfere with the ability of health care providers to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the mother and the fetus and making labor and delivery more difficult,” the group stated in a 2011 opinion.

"Shackling may put the health of the woman and fetus at risk. Shackling during transportation to medical care facilities and during the receipt of health services should occur only in exceptional circumstances for pregnant women and women within 6 weeks postpartum after a strong consideration of the health effects of restraints by the clinician providing care.”

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