We do not restrain during labor or delivery, or interfere with breast-feeding after childbirth. —Joseph Higgs, superintendent of the Rappahannock Regional Jail,
RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation to restrict the use of restraints on pregnant inmates has drawn support from groups across the political spectrum but has run into opposition from the Virginia Sheriffs Association, which claims there is no evidence of widespread mistreatment of mothers-to-be in state correctional facilities.
Representatives from abortion-rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, faith-based organizations and the conservative Family Foundation were among those advocating approval of the legislation at a news conference Tuesday.
Del. Patrick Hope's bill would prohibit the shackling of a pregnant inmate unless authorities determine she is a flight risk or a safety threat. Supporters of Hope's bill said some jailers and law enforcement officers routinely restrain pregnant women during transport to medical appointments, even though there has been no case of a pregnant prisoner hurting anyone or trying to escape in the 14 states that already prohibit or restrict shackling pregnant prisoners.
Katherine Greenier of the ACLU provided a list of 17 women who claimed they were restrained while pregnant, with a brief description of each woman's experience. Perhaps most extreme was the case of Tiarra Fain, who was eight months pregnant when she was jailed at Rappahannock Regional Jail on forgery and other charges.
"Tiarra went into labor on April 18, 2010, shackled by a chain around her waist with two handcuffs for her wrists connected to the side of the waist chain," Greenier said. "At the hospital, leather straps were used to chain Tiarra's arms and one leg to the hospital bed."
Fain was restrained during two days of recovery, forbidden from getting up and walking around as her doctors had suggested. The shackles were not removed to aid in breast-feeding Fain's baby, Greenier said.
Joseph Higgs, superintendent of the Rappahannock Regional Jail, called the ACLU's version of events "inaccurate" but declined to go into detail.
"We do not restrain during labor or delivery, or interfere with breast-feeding after childbirth," Higgs said. That has been the jail's policy since well before the Fain incident, he said.
John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association said he surveyed the state's sheriffs and found no cases of inmates being restrained during labor and delivery.
"I can't imagine that's happening," Jones said. "If it is, it probably ought to be fixed."
But writing a new law is not necessary, he said, because the state Board of Corrections already is developing regulations addressing the issue.
Hope, D-Arlington County, said a state statute would carry more weight and do more to encourage compliance than mere regulations. He also noted that his bill would still give authorities discretion to use restraints if necessary. They would just have to justify the action in writing for the sake of accountability.
Kristin Turner of Prison Fellowship, a prison ministry, fought back tears as she urged legislators to support Hope's bill.
"As a pregnant woman, it horrifies me that women succumb to this barbaric and unnecessary practice," Turner said. "I can't imagine bringing my child into this world in such a degrading and humiliating manner. Restraining inmates during labor and childbirth is cruel and offends the dignity of the mother, endangers the child, and is a stain on our society."
Jessica Honke of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia said the risks are physical as well as emotional. She said shackled pregnant women are more likely to trip or fall, risking miscarriage or injury, and heavy waist restraints can pose a risk to fetal health.
The Family Foundation of Virginia usually is at odds with Planned Parenthood, but on this issue the organizations agree. Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative foundation, issued a written statement calling the bill "a compassionate, commonsense reform essential for the full health and wellbeing of both mother and baby."
Although the bill's supporters said pregnant inmates pose little security risk, Jones defended the moderate use of restraints during transport to medical appointments or court appearances.
"An inmate's an inmate," he said. "We treat all inmates as an escape possibility."
He also said jailers and deputies might not always know if an inmate is pregnant, and some women might falsely claim to be pregnant just to avoid the restraints.
A House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee is expected to consider Hope's bill Thursday.