RI House passes pregnant inmate handcuff rules

By David Klepper
Associated Press / May 25, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Pregnant inmates in Rhode Island prisons could no longer be handcuffed or shackled during childbirth under legislation passed by the state House of Representatives Wednesday.

The legislation would prohibit the use of handcuffs, shackles or waist restraints during childbirth. Only the least restrictive restraints could be used during the second or third trimester of pregnancy, and medical staff could decide whether restraints should be removed. Exceptions could be made for inmates who pose a serious safety threat or flight risk.

The House passed the bill 48-16. The Senate has already passed an identical bill. Once both chambers finalize the bill it will head to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent.

The House bill's sponsor, Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, said her proposal is intended to prevent unnecessary harm to pregnant women and their unborn children. She called it a "humane" measure that recognizes pregnant prisoners present little threat.

"The top thing on her mind is not getting away, it's getting to the hospital," she said. "Ask a pregnant woman how fast she can run."

Opponents argued that the bill goes too far in restricting the use of handcuffs and restraints on women being transported to a medical appointment early their pregnancy. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry said that while the bill is well-intentioned, it could put prison guards in danger when transporting a pregnant woman to a routine doctor visit.

"You could have a murderer who is pregnant," said House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield. "The easiest time to escape is during transport."

Currently, the state has no standard policy on the use of restraints on pregnant inmates.

Eleven states have adopted policies on restraining pregnant prisoners in the past two years, according to Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a Washington D.C.-based group that pushed the federal prison system to adopt restrictions on restraining pregnant prisoners.

"Most women who are behind bars are nonviolent offenders and do not pose a security threat," she said. "There's been very little consideration for mothers behind bars in general, and restraint policies often reflect that disregard."