Federal Prisons

This Woman Was Shackled While Pregnant in Federal Prison. A New Bill Would Make Sure That Never Happens Again

Read the horrifying story of one woman who went through it.


Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Shortly after arriving at a federal prison in Georgia in the early 2000s, Pamela Winn discovered she was five to six weeks pregnant. No one told her the facility was designed for men, she says, and the staff hadn't been expecting any female inmates, much less a pregnant one. Inmates are often moved around in vans, and whenever Winn was transported she was shackled by the ankles and wrists. The wrist cuffs were in turn shackled to a chain that wrapped around her belly.

It was during one of these transports that Winn—who is only 5'1″—fell trying to climb into a van. "My wrists being secured to the belly chain on me, it was like a tree falling," Winn says. "There was no way for me to break my fall. I couldn't move or do anything but fall. From that point is when I started bleeding."

Winn says she sent numerous requests for medical treatment, but when the prison doctor finally examined her, she was told there was nothing they could do. "The doctor said she could order some prenatal vitamins for me, and I'm sitting there looking at her like, no, I need some help," Winn remembers. "I'm bleeding. A prenatal vitamin is not going to fix what's going on right now."

The prison had to get approval from the U.S. Marshals in order to transport Winn to a hospital. The turnaround time between request and approval was about four weeks. By the time Winn was sent to an emergency room, she says the hospital staff told her that, because the incident occured weeks ago, she would have to see an obstetrician. But of course that required another request to the U.S. Marshals and another four-week turnaround. And then another request and four-week turnaround for an ultrasound.

A fourth, follow-up appointment never occurred, because roughly around 20 weeks into her pregnancy, Winn miscarried.

Today, members of Congress introduced a bill that aims to make sure what happened to Winn never happens to anyone else. Cosponsored by a majority of Democratic and Republican women in the House, the bill would ban the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant inmates in the federal prison system.

The Pregnant Women in Custody Act, introduced by Reps. Karen Bass (D–Calif.), Mia Love (R–Utah) and Catherine Clark (D–Mass.), would ban the use of restraints and restrictive housing on female inmates during pregnancy, during labor, and post-partum. It would also set standards of care for pregnant female inmates.

"In the United States in 2018, the idea that we would actually shackle a pregnant women to a gurney while she is delivering a baby is really egregious," Bass says in an interview with Reason. "Of course, there is no policy that says a pregnant woman should be shackled to a gurney. There's a difference between policy and practice, and we know that this is a practice."

"As warriors of human dignity and human value, we have no higher responsibility than to care for a mother and her child," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R–Wash.), said in a press release. "I would like to sincerely thank Congresswoman Mia Love for leading on this bill that will ensure pregnant women who are incarcerated are treated with compassion and care."

The federal Bureau of Prisons' current policy bans the shackling of female inmates in most instances, but there is no federal law against the practice. It's banned in all but six states now, but according to reports, the practice persists even where it's supposedly illegal.

The experience, as Winn describes it, is horrific. "During the miscarriage, to hear people trying to figure out if they should call 911 or call the Marshals, that's reinforcement to me that there should be some sort of protocols in place," Winn says. "At that point I was concerned if I was going to live, because I'm bleeding out and these people don't know even what to do with me."

"Once I got to the hospital, I'm shackled to the bed in excruciating pain," Winn continues. "I've got two male officers down between my legs that I don't know anything about. You're already experiencing a loss and then you have to be humiliated and embarrassed on top of that."

"The lowest part for me was when the nurse stated that I had already passed the baby and she needed all of the linen that I had bled on prior to me getting to the hospital," Winn says. "[The officers] told her that they had thrown it in the trash. Just to hear that my baby was thrown in the trash, and the tone of the officers—like that was what they really felt about it, that it was trash—it's really hard. It's hard to come back from something like that. It was trash to them, but it was my child. It was a life. It was a part of me. My crime was about some money, and I'm sitting up there thinking to myself, there's no amount of money or nothing that I could have taken or did wrong to justify throwing my baby in the trash and treating me like I am trash."

Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S prison population. The female prison population has grown by 700 percent since 1980, but most prisons and prison services are geared toward men. In 2012, the ACLU estimated that about 12,000, or six percent, of the 200,000 female inmates in U.S. prisons and jails are pregnant at the time they're incarcerated.

Much of the growth in the female inmate population is happening in county jails, but research and public policy addressing "the precipitous rise in the number of women in jail" has lagged behind, a 2016 study by the Vera Institute reported.

Last year, a woman sued the Milwaukee County Jail for being subjected to repeated sexual assaults by a guard. She also said she was shackled while giving birth. The lawsuit alleged that at least 40 other women since 2011 had been forced to give birth while shackled to hospital beds. A jury awarded her $6.7 million. Another woman sued the Milwaukee County Jail again this August for being forced to give birth while shackled.

The bill also includes requirements for the federal government to collect data on the use of restraints and restrictive housing on any inmate while she is pregnant, in labor, or recovering from childbirth.

"For too long our federal prison system has operated without a national standard of care for pregnant incarcerated women," Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50, says in a statement to Reason. "As the number of incarcerated women skyrocketed, it is past time that we develop policies and procedures to ensure that our country treats them with dignity."

Winn says she was placed in solitary confinement, although the prison called it "medical observation" both prior to and after her miscarriage, by herself for 23 hours a day with no counseling or contact with her family.

"There's no one else to talk to, nobody else to share your pain and feelings with, no counseling, no nothing," Winn says. "Unless you're a very strong-minded person and can keep it together, you come out of there a lot worse than when you came in. Whatever sentence the judge gives you, that's not the sentence you serve. What you pay you can never get back. You lose so much of yourself, your dignity, your spirit, just you, the essence of who you are. It's not even quantitative what you lose in there."

When she was released, Winn wanted to take legal action against the prison, but was told the statute of limitations had passed. She is now organizing and advocating for a bill in Georgia that would introduce similar state reforms to treatment of female inmates.

"I think that's what's really driven me to do this work and to fight for these laws to be passed," Winn says. "The fact that they tell you there's nothing you can do. That just didn't sit well with my soul to know that someone can treat a person like this."

The new legislation, she says, is "very necessary, very much needed." It "addresses basically everything I experienced, as well as the things I've been fighting for since I returned home."

You can also watch Nicole Bennet, another formerly incarcerated woman, tell her story of delivering a child while shackled to a gurney here: