North Carolina became the 19th state to prohibit or restrict the shackling of pregnant inmates during childbirth this week, after its director of prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, signed legislation banning the practice.
The new policy is an apparent response to pushback from a coalition of advocacy groups, including the Atlanta-based SisterSong, which sent a letter last month to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety on behalf of inmates from the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women who were shackled while in labor. The coalition said two unnamed women were shackled “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.”
Though further information about the two inmates has yet to surface, the letter prompted an internal review that ultimately led to the change in policy, which further bans the use of handcuffs or other restraints “during the mother's initial bonding with her newborn, including nursing and skin-to-skin contact,” according to the News & Observer.
In 2006, the UN Committee against Torture found the practice of shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth to be in violation of Article 16 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The American Medical Association condemned the “barbaric practice that needlessly inflicts excruciating pain and humiliation” at its annual meeting in 2010, urging states to model new anti-shackling legislation on New Mexico’s, which bans “restraints of any kind” unless a pregnant inmate poses a flight risk or an immediate threat to herself or others.
“I am unaware of any cases of women or girls in labor attempting to escape. If I did, I would suggest that they are superhuman,” Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told the Guardian. “Corrections officials often use this crazy scenario as a justification for chaining women prisoners during childbirth—but it simply doesn’t hold water.”
“The vast majority of female prisoners or detainees incarcerated are non-violent offenders and restraining these prisoners and detainees increases their potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall,” the AMA’s Advocacy Resource Center concluded in its report on model legislation. “Moreover, freedom from physical restraints is especially critical during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery after delivery. Most importantly, restraints on a pregnant woman can interfere with the medical staff’s ability to appropriately assist in childbirth or to conduct sudden emergency procedures.”