State Politics

NC prisons reconsider whether to strap pregnant inmates to their beds during childbirth

Barbed wire fences surround the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
Barbed wire fences surround the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. News & Observer file photo

North Carolina policies that call for pregnant inmates to be shackled to a hospital bed while in labor could be revised soon, after a complaint about the practice.

The review comes 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 two unnamed inmates.

“The North Carolina Department of Public Safety prohibits the use of shackling during delivery and yet in recent weeks at least two people from the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women were restrained throughout their laboring process at a local medical center,” the coalition of organizations stated. “This was in spite of the concerns of medical staff and the fact that it was in violation of NC Department of Public Safety written policies and legal precedent.”

Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said Friday that a review had been launched shortly after SisterSong notified prison officials. Prison workers sought more information, but had not identified who the inmates were nor been able to get many more details about the experiences of the women.

“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 a statement earlier this week.

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.

Once the child is born, the mother can bond with the baby as long as the mother is in the hospital, Walker said. Once the offender is discharged from the hospital to return to prison, the individual designated by the inmate in her “baby plan” to be the caretaker will come to the hospital and take custody of the child.

There are currently 50 pregnant offenders housed in the state prison system, Walker said.

Inmates can be restrained while in childbirth. Policy that dates back to 2015 states that inmates shall not be restrained “while in delivery,” she added. But delivery is a medical term, Walker said, and precisely when that means the restraints should come off is not spelled out in the policy.

“That will be reinforced in the new policy anticipated to be instituted soon,” she said.

Prison officials are consulting with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association to help develop a revised policy that “will 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.

There has been a global movement in recent years to end the shackling of pregnant prisoners, and offer better treatment in general to female inmates.

Last year, the federal Bureau of Prisons announced that feminine hygiene products had to be provided to inmates free of charge. A group of Democratic senators introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which would ban the shackling of pregnant women.

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. Neither the inmates nor health care workers contacted SisterSong directly so it was not clear who the inmates were or which hospitals they were in. Among the states that have restricted shackling, Burney-Scott said, none has any documented instances of people in labor escaping or causing harm to themselves, the public, security guards, or medical staff.

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.”

“With people of color overrepresented in the prison system, this issue falls hardest on people who already struggle with health disparities and higher rates of pregnancy complications and maternal mortality,” Burney-Scott said.

SisterSong and other representatives of the coalition praised North Carolina prison officials for reviewing the policy.

“Advocates will continue to work to ensure not only that the policy around shackling during labor is enforced, but to make sure that people are supported during postpartum recovery and that we can improve the access to adequate care and services to promote the health and dignity of people who are incarcerated,” the coalition representatives said in a statement. “We will also work to push for training of staff, so that the policies are consistently enforced.”

Walker said she did not know how long the review would take, but expected policy changes to be announced soon.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1