Legislation would set rules for shackling of incarcerated pregnant women

By | 11.10.11 | 7:00 am

State Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa (Pic by Meredith Geddings, via myfloridahouse.gov)

Advocates for legislation that would create humane rules for the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women say the law would fill a present gap in jail policies in Florida, despite claims by the Florida Department of Corrections that the measure is unnecessary.

State Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, have introduced a bill that creates rules in county and city jails to protect the health of pregnant women who are incarcerated.

Last session, a similar bill almost made it to a final vote, but it eventually died. While the bill found wide support, Florida’s Department of Corrections opposed the measure.

A response (.pdf) from the department, posted on the website of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, claims that a report that gave the state of Florida an “F” for its shackling policies was “misleading.”

Officials at the state agency said they have policies prohibiting the restraints of women who are in labor, as well as guidelines for pregnant women.

According to a statement from Florida Department of Correction to The Florida Independent:

The Florida Department of Corrections does not shackle female inmates in any stage of labor. Florida refers each pregnant inmate to an OB/GYN physician to provide prenatal care and follow them through their pregnancy. Inmates receive prenatal counseling, vitamins and exams. They also receive an extra nutritional meal each day. Any time a woman is pregnant and sent to prison it is a tragedy for mother and child. Florida does not have prison nurseries, so mothers must make a decision about where to place their child well prior to birth. Most place children with family members. At all stages of her incarceration medical personnel are consulted. A pregnant women who is being transported may be restrained, depending on her custody level and behavior. She may be restrained if she is considered a security risk by the Officer in Charge. However, if the inmate is already in labor during transport, she will not be restrained. In the hospital after delivery is complete, inmates are tethered to their recovery beds by one ankle.(This is provide security for the hospital and to prevent escapes). Additionally, there is a correctional officer in the room with them at all times, to be sure they have access to the bathroom or any other needs they may have. Infants do not return to prison with their mothers. Most pregnant inmates reside at Lowell CI, there are 20 to 25 there on average. Late term pregnant inmates (over 35 weeks) are housed at Broward CI.

The 2010 report in question was compiled by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. It analyzed whether a state’s policies harm pregnant women who are incarcerated.

The report was also “intended to help advocates assess their own state’s policies affecting these significant phases of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and parenting.” It gave a failing grade to any state that failed to “comprehensively limit, or limit at all, the use of restraints on pregnant women during transportation, labor and delivery and postpartum recuperation.” Thirty-six states, including Florida, received failing grades.

ACLU of Florida Policy and Advocacy Counsel Julie Ebenstein says that although the Department of Corrections has shackling policies for pregnant women in place, Florida jails do not.

She says the Florida Model Jail Standards currently do not contain a policy for the treatment of pregnant women.

Florida Model Jail Standards are “modeled after the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation (CFA) process,” according to the Florida Sheriffs Association website. The Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission is an 11-member body that “develops standards for the accreditation of local jail facilities.”

Ebenstein says the problems associated with shackling pregnant women “are more prevalent in jails” than in prisons. According to her, the proposed legislation “is not at odds with the Department of Corrections policy.”

In 2009, an article in The Nation shed light on the conditions of incarcerated pregnant women. The article reported a grizzly story involving a young pregnant woman who was incarcerated in a Florida jail.

The article reported:

In the Collier County Jail in Florida, Joan S. repeatedly sought medical attention because she was near her due date and leaking amniotic fluid; this went on for almost two weeks. By the time she got an ultrasound, the doctor informed her that all of her amniotic fluid was gone and her fetus’s skull had collapsed. Jail officials then delayed taking her to the hospital, putting her at risk for septic shock the longer the dead fetus remained inside her. As if this were not bad enough, the jail delayed giving her a shot she needed because she has RH-negative blood, which could cause complications if she becomes pregnant in the future. She is only 22.

Ebenstein says the issue is about protecting public health. “This isn’t strictly about prisoner rights,” she says.

The bill is also quite expansive, according to Ebenstein. Women who are detained by immigration services, women who are in private prisons, and women in detention centers would all be protected by the law.

The 2010 Rebecca report found that there were no policies in place for women under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE ) detention.

The Huffington Post reported in September about the prevalence of detained undocumented pregnant women being forced to give birth while shackled. In the article, it was reported that ICE’s policy on the treatment of pregnant women is currently insufficient and poorly enforced.

According to the article:

[Michelle] Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, claims that although ICE policy includes language about the treatment of pregnant women, it’s not “proscriptive” or “legally binding.”

“They say, our policy is that we don’t shackle women, but they don’t say ‘Don’t shackle women,’ and they don’t hold anyone to it,” Brané said.

…”One of the shortfalls of ICE is that they won’t push local authorities enough — they’re very happy to wash their hands of things, and say, ‘That happened under local authority, not our authority.’” Brané said. “If you know someone is interpreting your request in a way that is illegal — just like with racial profiling — I think you have a responsibility to clear those ambiguities up.”

Aggie Hoffman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, believes that abuses of pregnant women seem to occur when “local law enforcement agencies act either out of ignorance of immigration proceedings or because they were not properly trained.” She also believes ICE must work harder to hold local law enforcement accountable for such abuses.

Christensen, the ICE spokeswoman, said in a statement that “it is against ICE policy to use restraints in medical situations, absent extraordinary circumstances.” Furthermore, she says that “guidance issued to the field in ICE Director John Morton’s June 2010 Civil Enforcement Priorities memo directs agency personnel not to detain pregnant or nursing women, unless they are required by law to be detained because of the severity of their criminal history or other extraordinary circumstances.”

Ebenstein says shackling policies have become a national issue.

“There is national appeal here,” she says. “But one of the most difficult parts has been raising awareness.”

“Ultimately,” she explains, “this is about women’s health.”

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