Maryland delegates consider a ban on using restraints on pregnant inmates

March 10, 2013

Angela Bailey was six months pregnant when she was convicted of credit card fraud and sent to the Harford County Detention Center in Maryland.

Three months later, as she lay in an ambulance transporting her to a hospital to deliver her baby, prison guards handcuffed her and manacled her legs.

In her hospital room, Bailey recalled, she was unshackled so that she could undress, and then cuffed by her ankle to her hospital bed. They removed the restraint six hours later, but only after a doctor asked. Bailey was just about to give birth.

“I felt like an animal,” she said. “Where was I going to go?”

Bailey’s account is the kind that has prompted Maryland state lawmakers to consider banning the use of restraints on inmates who are more than four months pregnant. About 1,100 pregnant women have been incarcerated in state facilities during the past 3½ years. For more than a decade, the agency has sought to provide medical services for pregnant inmates at detention centers to minimize the need for off-site travel.

Referred to as the “anti-shackling” bill in Annapolis, proposed legislation seeks to codify what generally is the practice at state prisons. But bill supporters say it also would ensure uniform regulations for county jails, such as the facility in Harford County where Bailey was an inmate last year.

“We have policies that limit the use, but we don’t have a position as a state that it’s not our policy to shackle or restrain pregnant women,” said Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), the legislation’s sponsor. “It should be our position that we don’t do it.”

Officials at Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) have not taken a position on the proposal, which is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

But officials said their policy — prohibiting restraints on pregnant inmates unless “absolutely” necessary — is sufficient. Agency spokesman Mark Vernarelli wrote in an e-mail that the policy is “one of the best, if not the best in the country.”

The proposal has prompted opposition from some prison officials and corrections officers. Mary Lou McDonough, director of the Prince George’s Department of Corrections, said decisions about what is needed to adequately guard an inmate — pregnant or otherwise — should be left up to the guards.

“I don’t want to give up that control,” McDonough said. “Unfortunately, some pregnant detainees can be violent . . . We feel we need to make that decision on whether they need to be detained or not.”

As a general rule, McDonough said, pregnant inmates in Prince George’s are not restrained “during active labor and delivery.” However, a handcuff often is used when pregnant inmates are transported. “Medical appointments and hospital visits are the number one time when escapes are attempted,” she said. “We need to be able to use our judgment.”

Eighteen states — including Arizona, Texas and New York — have passed anti-shackling legislation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the proposal. A total of 33 members of the House of Delegates have sponsored the legislation. Although Washington said she has heard expressions of support from the Senate side of the General Assembly, no senator has proposed a similar measure.

Sara Love, public policy director for the ACLU’s Maryland chapter, credited Maryland prison officials with revising their restraint policies for pregnant women in written testimony she submitted to the judiciary committee late last month.

But she said that “many women” are detained in more than 20 local detention centers that are not subject to the state’s policy. “Maryland needs to codify a ban on the shackling of pregnant women to ensure that no Maryland woman ever undergoes this barbaric practice again,” Love said.

The state’s policy allows for restraints “only when absolutely necessary to protect the pregnant individual from self-harm, harming others, or to prevent escape,” Rick Binetti, DPSCS’s chief spokesman wrote in an e-mail, a determination that is made on a “case-by-case basis.”

“In practice this would happen most likely for an inmate during transport, and when an inmate moves around an unsecured part of a hospital,” he wrote. A hospital, Binetti said, “can circumvent” the department’s policy. “When we are on their turf, their rules are followed,” he wrote.

Advocates for the proposed law presented the judiciary committee with testimony from two former inmates who recounted being shackled while delivering babies, though both gave birth before the state enacted its policies in 2006.

In one case, Danielle Sweigert, who was seven months pregnant at a detention center in Jessup, said her leg and hand were shackled to a bed frame during delivery.

“I was kept in shackles and handcuffs throughout my actual labor,” she said in written testimony. “It was a terrible experience. The whole time I was pushing, I was worrying about the shackles and the handcuffs. I couldn’t grab onto anything.”

Rebecca Swope, also a former pregnant inmate at Jessup, said she was “strapped at my breast, midsection, upper thighs and lower legs to the stretcher” and also handcuffed at the “wrist and ankle” during her ambulance ride to the hospital.

She described the experience as “10 miles of torture.”

At the hospital, she said, her right wrist and ankle were handcuffed to the bed during a relatively short delivery that culminated with the birth of her daughter, Hannah. Swope said she relives the “traumatic” experience “on every one of my daughter’s birthdays.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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