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Politics

Broad Support For NC Bill To Bar Shackling Pregnant Inmates

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Matthew Henry
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A North Carolina bill would severely limit the handcuffing and shackling of pregnant women who are incarcerated and seek to ensure newborns and their mothers are cared for well.

Updated 3:03 p.m. April 20

A bipartisan legislative effort to improve the care of pregnant women in North Carolina's prisons and jails will protect the mothers and newborns without diminishing public safety, supporters said Tuesday.

Among other protections, the bill would prohibit physical restraints on incarcerated women before, during and after they deliver their babies.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are backing the measure, and a wide array of groups across the ideological spectrum — from Planned Parenthood to the American Conservative Union — are on board.

The proposed “Dignity for Women Who are Incarcerated Act, ” filed on Tuesday in the House, also attempts to ensure new mothers receive proper nutrition and hygiene, and that the mother-and-child relationship is secured through close contact and visitations. It also would limit inspections of any undressed female inmate in a prison or jail by male correctional officers or jailers.

More than 30 states have passed legislation limiting the shackling of pregnant women behind bars, advocates say, including recently in South Carolina and Georgia.

The bill takes “critical steps in protecting the health and well-being of our women who are pregnant and incarcerated and their vulnerable children as well,” bill sponsor Rep. Kristin Baker, a Cabarrus County Republican and a physician, said at a Legislative Building news conference.

Dozens of women serving time give birth in North Carolina hospitals each year. Twenty-eight pregnant women are currently being held at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said. Sheriffs who run North Carolina’s jails don’t keep track of the cumulative number of deliveries by inmates.

Shackling pregnant women is already barred by state prison policy going back to 2017, but Ishee acknowledged that some correctional workers haven't always followed the rules. Jails have a patchwork of procedures, depending on the county and the sheriff.

The bill would bar the use of all kinds of restraints on women serving time or awaiting trial during their second and third trimesters, during labor and six weeks after delivery. There are exceptions, such as when the woman is being transported outside the prison or jail, as long as she is not in labor. Only handcuffs or wrist restraints, secured in front of the woman’s body, can be used in such cases.

Shackles endanger the health of the woman and unborn child and “interfere with the ability of health care providers to safely practice medicine,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in 2011.

Kristie Puckett Williams, who now leads a criminal justice reform effort at the North Carolina ACLU, was in the Mecklenburg County Jail for months while pregnant in 2007. She received no prenatal care and didn’t know she was having twins until she delivered, five days after pleading guilty to drug charges — a decision she made to avoid remaining behind bars.

Williams said the shackling of pregnant women is "dehumanizing, demeaning and demoralizing” and often hurts Black women the most. She recalls being restrained around her hands and waist, making it difficult to walk while she held up oversized pants.

“Let’s put the partisan politics away and provide dignity for incarcerated people,” Williams said.

OB-GYN Dr. Kerianne Crockett was overcome with emotion as she described caring for an inmate through labor and delivery at a Greenville hospital in 2019. The woman was restrained at the ankle and wrist, and the newborn died.

Crockett says she doesn't know whether the restraints contributed to the baby's death, but she said the woman's “difficult and heartbreaking experience was turned into a traumatic one by the shackles she was forced to wear."

The North Carolina OB-GYN Society backs the measure, which directs that the newborn stay with the mother after delivery in a hospital, and that those in low- or medium-security prisons receive routine visitation access in the first year of the baby’s life.

About 100 babies were born to women in state prison custody in 2018, according to DPS. That number dropped below 50 in 2019 and then fewer than 10 last year as pregnant women were relocated from behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association supports the bill. Ishee said his department doesn’t oppose it, and looks forward to “grow and evolve our practices” with the General Assembly.

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