Shackling Female Inmates During Labor And Childbirth Must Stop

August 15th, 2011 Posted in Prison Reform
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Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

In 2009, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Jail Project (TJP) worked with state legislators to pass laws protecting pregnant inmates and babies born to incarcerated mothers.  Our follow-up research shows those reforms have failed in several respects.

One of the 2009 laws banned the use of shackles on pregnant inmates during transport, labor, and delivery.  Our review of the six largest county jails in Texas indicated three main problems facing jails implementing this law.  First, correctional officers often fail to recognize labor or they believe inmates are faking the symptoms, leading to the use of shackles in violation of state law.  Second, there is confusion over what types of restraints are not permitted.  For example, the law bars any restraints but jails often use handcuffs in violation of the law because of this misunderstanding.  Third, the exception to the total bar on restraints allows for use of restraints to, “ensure the safety of the woman and her infant, jail or medical personnel, or any member of the public,” or to “prevent a substantial risk that the woman will attempt escape.”  This exception provides no guidance as to what is and is not a permissible basis to use restraints, leaving individual correctional officers to make snap decisions throughout the 245 jails across the state.

This information was gathered by TJP and the ACLU of Texas the following year after the law was enacted. We contacted six major jails in Texas and identified ongoing challenges with full implementation of the new laws.  The Implementation of Laws Regarding Treatment of Pregnant Women in Texas County Jails report offers a review of current policies and identifies opportunities for creating stronger policies that will ensure the safety of women and children in Texas jails.

To address these issues, the ACLU of Texas recommends the following actions:

  •  Correctional officers should be trained to recognize labor.
  • Legislators should define the term “restraint” in state law to include handcuffs, leg irons, belly chains, or other mechanical devices. 
  •  The Texas Commission on Jail Standards should create a standard (through agency rules) requiring reporting any time the public safety exception to the bar on shackling is used and restraints are used on a pregnant inmate during transport, labor, or delivery.

These three fairly simple solutions would make women and children safer and would encourage county jail compliance with state law thereby reducing potential legal liability.

Help turn our recommendations into policy: Tell the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to implement the ACLU of Texas’ recommendations.

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