Pregnant inmates in Virginia would no longer be restrained by waist chains during their pregnancies or labor, except in extreme circumstances, under new regulations approved by the commonwealth’s Board of Corrections.
The rules adopted this month will be subject to a 30-day period for public input and must be signed off on by the attorney general and governor before becoming law. The regulations put into writing what many jails in the commonwealth already do, said William Wilson, a local facilities supervisor with the Virginia Department of Corrections who handles jail complaints.
“I don’t think this was a big problem,” Wilson said. “The jails have been doing, by and large, exactly what this spells out. The board members felt like it seemed like a good idea.”
The board approved amending the minimum standards in jails for restraining pregnant offenders at its Nov. 14 meeting. Under the proposed guidelines, inmates known to be pregnant “shall be handcuffed only in front” unless the inmate is a flight or security risk. The policy applies to transport during medical visits, labor, delivery and postpartum recovery.
Several stakeholders met in recent months to craft the language approved by the corrections board.
Activists cheered the changes as necessary for the safety of pregnant inmates and said the measures will end uncertainty in the state’s jails and prisons on this issue.
“Women and unborn children should be treated with basic human dignity,” said Heather Rice, director of the U.S. Prisons and Policy Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), one of several groups that pushed for a ban on using such restraints on pregnant inmates in Virginia. “No woman who is in one of the most precarious situations and circumstances . . . should have to unnecessarily go through being restrained.”
Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur, president of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, said the regulations would put into law what many jails in the commonwealth already do.
“I have no issue with making sure everyone is following the same procedures in these circumstances,” said Arthur, who helped to craft the rules. “We base our decisions on how [inmates] behave while incarcerated. A lot of this stuff was happening. Our concerns were about the safety and security of everybody.”
In changing its rules, Virginia would become only the 18th state to codify restricting the use of restraints on pregnant women, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The practice is allowed in Maryland and the District, and most states do not proactively define the treatment of pregnant inmates.
The commonwealth’s prisons adopted the restrictions as a matter of policy last year. The action by the Corrections Board was aimed at the state’s local and regional jails, which did not have uniform standards for pregnant inmates specifically.
In Virginia, the issue arose when a female inmate contacted Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) and complained that she was restrained during labor.
“The whole attitude by law enforcement officers was that an inmate is an inmate, and every inmate is a flight and safety risk,” Hope said. “What we’ve done here is demand that discretion be used every time a pregnant inmate is going to be transported.”
Hope attempted to introduce legislation addressing the issue during the past two General Assemblies but was unsuccessful. His bill called for a ban on restraints on pregnant inmates during labor, transport to a medical facility, delivery or postpartum recovery “unless . . . there is a compelling reason to believe that the prisoner poses serious harm to herself or others, is a flight risk, or cannot be reasonably restrained by other means.”
Opponents of restraining pregnant inmates argue that it is an unsafe practice that endangers the mother and child.
Restraints during pregnancy can make a woman susceptible to a fall and possible miscarriage, and restraining a woman’s legs after delivery can cause hemorrhaging, according to Rice, who said women need to be free to move about during the delivery process.
“Freedom from restraints in labor and delivery is especially critical,” she said. “You’re part of the process. Women in labor are not high flight risks. [Restraints] are unnecessary. ”
But law enforcement officials say pregnant inmates can also be dangerous. In some cases, it isn’t noticeable that an inmate is pregnant, or a woman could lie about being pregnant.
“Most individuals that come into jails . . . are often high, intoxicated, they could be mentally unstable,” Arthur said. “Just because they may be arrested for a nonviolent offense does not mean that’s going to match their behavior.”