Can Pregnant Women Be Shackled In D.C.?
A post from City Paper intern Alex Burchfield:
Last week, NPR’s Andrea Hsu aired a story about the shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth. Her report sheds light on a little-known practice that lawyers and human rights advocates are calling “tantamount to torture.” Take the story of 25-year-old Jennifer Farrar, who was arrested and charged for cashing fake payroll checks:
One day the following January, Farrar went to court for a hearing, and there the pains began. An ambulance was called. Farrar says officers cuffed her hands and chained her legs together. Another chain was placed around her belly, connecting her hands to her feet. When she got to the hospital, she says, the belly chain was removed, but her legs were still chained and one hand was cuffed to the bed.
For a woman accused of merely faking payroll checks, this treatment seems excessive, to say the least. And according to doctors and nurses, such treatment also poses serious health risks. Ginette Ferszt, an Associate Professor at the University of Rhode Island's College of Nursing, informed The Sexist of a number of risks involved with shackling: It can interfere with pain relief, prevent the proper performance of a C-section, and delay the administration of an epidural. Possible complications can include excessive bleeding or even the death of the child.
As stories similar to Farrar's have proliferated across the country, ten states have passed legislation to ban shackles, handcuffs and restraints during childbirth: California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Vermont, Washington state, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Notice that the District of Columbia is not included on that list? The District’s Department of Corrections didn't respond to a request for comment on shackling. So attorney Deborah Golden, a member of the DC Prisoners’ Legal Services Project Staff, provided some insight into D.C.’s history with the practice. “DC doesn’t explicitly ban shackling and there is no policy, per se,” Golden wrote in an e-mail. “But in 1996, in the course of Women Prisoners of DC v. DC, the court banned shackling of women in labor."
Can a woman be legally chained to her bed while giving birth in the District? Technically. In 1993, Women Prisoners of DC filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, alleging that their constitutional rights had been violated after male prison staffers had physically and sexually abused them. Over the course of three years, the DOC was ordered to institute mandatory training on sexual harassment and hire a health educator. In addition to these demands, the court banned all use of restraints during and after child delivery. So far, the precedent of this ruling has not been rescinded—but it is by no means an absolute safeguard. "Technically, the injunction doesn’t exist anymore," Golden said. "[B]ut everyone has pretty much followed that practice, as far as I know.”
Photo via captain.orange, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0