6th state will curb shackling

N.Y. set to ban use on pregnant prisoners in labor

By Cristian Salazar
Associated Press / August 26, 2009

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NEW YORK - For nearly four hours before she gave birth, Venita Pinckney had a chain wrapped around her swollen abdomen. Her ankles were shackled together and her hands were cuffed.

The 37-year-old was in a maximum-security prison for violating parole. An officer told her the use of restraints on pregnant inmates was “procedure.’’

“I’m saying to myself, ‘I feel like a pregnant animal,’ ’’ said Pinckney, who was taken from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to a hospital for the birth of her son last year.

At state prisons around the country, jailed women are routinely shackled during childbirth, often by correctional staff without medical training, according to civil rights organizations and prisoner advocates. The practice has been condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for unnecessarily risking women’s health, and court challenges are pending in several states.

Federal prisons and five states largely ban shackling pregnant women in prison. Governor David Paterson is expected to sign a law this week that would make New York the sixth state to do so.

“A woman giving birth to a child is hardly the first person that is going to be thinking of trying to escape or create any kind of problem,’’ the governor said last week.

Correction departments and unions have argued that any broad policy that bans shackling could put medical staff and correctional officers at risk.

“We certainly use a common-sense approach regarding shackling, whether it’s females or males,’’ said Donn Rowe, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which represents 23,000 state employees. “A blanket policy . . . doesn’t fit all cases with something of this nature when you’re dealing with some possibly dangerous inmates.’’

It isn’t clear how many inmates nationwide are affected by the practice. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics said 4 percent of state inmates and 3 percent of federal inmates were pregnant in 2008 when they were first incarcerated. Data weren’t available to indicate how many women delivered babies in prison or were restrained while doing so.

The bill awaiting Paterson’s signature would ban restraints on inmates giving birth, except when needed to keep a woman from injuring herself, medical staff, or correctional officers. In those cases, women would be cuffed on one wrist while being taken from prison to the hospital.

Similar laws exist in Texas, Illinois, California, Vermont, and New Mexico, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Legislatures in Massachusetts and Tennessee are considering bans, too. Advocates say the bans haven’t led to any escape attempts.

Several lawsuits challenging the practice are pending throughout the country.