Will Utah Ban the Shackling of Inmates in Labor?

A bill to stop the dangerous practice reaches the next step.


|||Peggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Peggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Utah just took a major step to improve the treatment of pregnant women behind bars. The state legislature has passed the Inmate Restrictions Standards Amendments, which aims to end the practice of shackling inmates' feet while they're in labor. As of Friday, the bill is currently in "enrolled" status, which means it is being prepared to reach the governor's desk.

The bill includes provisions for officials worried about violent inmates: Soft restraints during childbirth are permissible under certain circumstances, as is a certain degree of shackling during transportation to the hospital.

Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, tells the Associated Press that restricting movement during labor is risky, since it can create blood clots or prevent doctors from having quick access to the patient during an emergency. Fettig says there have been no documented escape attempts during the very intense act of childbirth.

Several states have already prohibited this practice, though pregnant prisoners have still sometimes been subjected to it despite the anti-shackling laws already on the books. In at least one 2018 case, a woman in New York was forcibly restrained by her ankles and wrists during labor, even though the state had supposedly banned that nine years earlier. Unfortunately, the poor treatment of pregnant women behind bars is an issue that has reached all corners of the United States.

There have also been attempts to stop the practice on the federal level. In 2017, Democratic senators introduced and co-sponsored the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which sought to additionally ban the use of solitary confinement on pregnant inmates. The Pregnant Women in Custody Act, introduced by Reps. Karen Bass (D–Calif.), Catherine Clark (D–Mass.), and Mia Love (R–Utah) in 2018, was similarly aimed at stopping the shackling. It also sought to create standards for the treatment of pregnant inmates.

2018 also saw passage of the FIRST STEP Act, which among other things called for a nationwide ban. Despite that law, and despite past changes to Utah prison policy, doctors in the state have still reported encountering laboring women in restraints.

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  1. Fettig says there have been no documented escape attempts during the very intense act of childbirth.

    How about the contraindication? Death or injuries due to “creation of blood clots or prevention doctors from having quick access”? It would seem like Freddie Gray would be enough of a reason to get the legcuffs off of all prisoners, so the reason to take them off of women, selectively, seems afoul of ‘equal before the law’.

  2. Obstetrics, mostly it is not all that complicated when basic delivery happens. A good OB nurse can tell you more about it and what can happen.

    When things do go wrong they occur very fast. There is no time to deal with cuffs and shackles in those circumstances. The patients, there are two of them now. Let the medicals work.

    If law enforcement wants to stand outside the room, fine. Otherwise get out of the way.

    It really takes some new law to get this common sense?

  3. In my days of doing that duty as a corrections officer I did have to gown and mask up once and be in the room, not because the inmate was a flight risk, but because she was in the process of turning state’s witness on some major gang activity. Sorry, can’t leave a girl alone in that situation. Not even a little bit.

    When you spend hours and hours, even days sitting bedside with a gal going through a difficult labor you can’t help but develop an empathic bound. Thus it was that as the birth hour approached, my inmate looked at me and said, “Officer Cook, I just can’t settle on a girl’s name. I want something memorable, like from a song.”

    Then up popped the devil in my head. “You know,” I said, “I’ve always liked that song Ooh you make my motor run, my motor run, got it coming off the line, My Sharona. . .”

    Now, years later, I have to live with the responsibility that there is a young woman walking around saddled with M-m-m-my Sharona from a 1979 rock song by The Knack, all because of me.

  4. What if sentencing could just be delayed for any pregnant woman? I mean, a 9 month delay, during which time they’d be under house arrest and wearing an ankle monitor.

    This way, the state could just avoid all the hassle and cost of pregnancy. Sometime after she gives birth, maybe a couple/few weeks, she can start serving her term.

    And can we do something to ensure women aren’t able to become pregnant while incarcerated? Then all these ridiculous laws would become moot.

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  6. The other big issue with the pregnant arrestee is dwindling rapidly in blue states, as the infant itself increasingly has no rights at all. If the mother wants to be continuously on drugs through the whole pregnancy and then have the viable born-alive (but addicted) fetus drowned in a tub of saline solution immediately upon emergence into the world, well, that is modern women’s values, don’t you know, and we religious rednecks have to shut up about it. Even if the umbilical has been cut, the “fetus” is still “part” of the woman’s body, and if mother says kill it, the staff will kill it. What “medical” personnel we have in this era!

    Now it varies from institution to institution, but well-run jails can be drug free. If a pregnancy is headed full term, that is really good for the infant. Why would baby momma want to go full term? We have a welfare system with certain incentives in that regard, remember. Also gals hang on to the dream that the child will bring the man back to them, maybe eventually. It is a piece of the guy that got away.

    Incidentally, my son (a former police officer retired early after a horrendous shooting incident) has adopted three drug-addicted babies. They are all thriving. Even babies that have to withdraw from heroin often have fewer long term effects than alcohol syndrome babies. I knew that from my days as a certified drug and alcohol counselor on the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux rez in Montana.

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