State prison officials are reviewing policies on shackling inmates after a coalition reached out over concerns that two women were restrained "throughout their laboring process" in recent months.
The state Department of Public Safety said a revised policy will reinforce an existing rule against restraining inmates during delivery, but a department spokeswoman said state prison officials haven't been able to confirm whether the reported shackled deliveries actually happened.
As of Monday, department spokeswoman Pamela Walker said officials were "still looking into it" and that prisons management was "unaware of anyone being restrained during delivery, which is against policy."
SisterSong, which focuses on reproductive rights for women of color, said it reached out to the department Jan. 22 after someone from a local medical facility contacted them and said two prisoners were shackled despite medical staff asking that the shackles be removed.
Omisade Burney Scott, the group's director of strategic partnerships and advocacy, said she couldn't name the facility or be certain that the person who reported the incidents actually witnessed them. Limited information was passed to the group, and Scott said she didn't have the women's names or the dates of their deliveries, just that they occurred in January or December and that the women had been held at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
Walker said prisons officials have been unable to get enough detail to identify "whether there is any validity to the allegation," but SisterSong's concerns sparked this planned policy rewrite.
There were 81 deliveries last year by pregnant offenders in the state's care, Walker said in an email. As of last week, there were 50 pregnant offenders in state custody, she said. State policy requires women to be unshackled during active labor, but Scott said the policy language is "very, very broad" and that it doesn't make clear what counts as active labor.
"Active labor" is one of a few exceptions to the prison system's restraint policies, which generally require inmates be restrained while outside a correctional facility or a secure transport vehicle.
At one point, the policy states that "at NO time will an inmate be unrestrained while lying in a hospital bed or treatment gurney." But this is apparently superseded by an admonition, bolded and underlined, that, "no inmate will be restrained while in delivery."
The policy also says new mothers "shall be restrained after birth of the child and the medical authorities have completed their work," but also that she "shall not have her hands restrained while bonding and feeding the baby."
"The handcuffs will be removed from an inmate who has recently given birth in order for the inmate to hold her newborn child," the policy states. "The inmate must remain sitting in her bed or chair while holding the newborn child. Leg irons will remain on the inmate. "Another policy, on use of force and restraint, states that a "maternity inmate WILL NOT have leg restraints applied."
Walker said the department will work across its divisions to review policies on pregnant inmates and consult outside groups, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. "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 an email.
Scott called shackling people during and after childbirth unsafe and inhumane. Among other things, it can delay an emergency C-section if complications arise, she said. More than 20 states have laws prohibiting the shackling of people during childbirth, and Scott said she'd like to see North Carolina adopt a policy more like those in New York, Illinois and California, which she called "phenomenal."
"I don't know many pregnant women who try to escape the hospital when they're in the throes of labor," Scott said.
In addition to SisterSong, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, the North Carolina Black Women's Roundtable and eight other groups reached out to the state prison system on this issue.