It sounds almost too cruel to be true: a woman inmate is shackled to a hospital bed while delivering her baby. Sadly, hundreds of women across the country endure that humiliation, an unthinkable indignity for an already downtrodden group.
Ginette Ferszt, a psychiatric nursing professor at the University of Rhode Island, is so disturbed by the practice she's at the forefront of a national campaign aimed at banning shackling and improving conditions for all women prisoners.
"I can't imagine being restrained by the ankle during birth," she said. "It's inhumane."
Earlier this year, Ferszt contacted wardens in all 50 states, asking for details about the care for pregnant inmates, from whether they were shackled during childbirth to the availability of counseling groups.
Only 19 states replied. The results shocked her. Two states — Rhode Island was not among them — reported that they use belly chains, leg irons, and handcuffs when pregnant women are transported to and from the hospital. Six states use a hand or ankle restraint when labor begins, and four of those keep the shackle on during delivery.
Working with The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a women's advocacy group, and Amnesty International, Ferszt said the goal is to eliminate shackling nationwide, in all circumstances, for pregnant inmates.
In Rhode Island, the situation is not perfect, but far from dire.
The Department of Corrections policy is that women inmates are restrained on their way to and from the hospital for doctor visits. They are not restrained during delivery or in the recovery room immediately after delivery. But they are handcuffed in their hospital room later.
The policy is unacceptable to the Rhode Island chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women, which want to ban as standard procedure all restraints — to and from the hospital and in all phases of recovery.
Legislation the two groups proposed this year to achieve that ban did not win enough support to make it out of committee hearings, although ACLU executive director Steven Brown promises to be back next year with another push.
"It's degrading, it's demeaning, and it's a potential hazard to the woman," says Brown. "It's a complete overreaction to any security needs the public officials might have."
Carolyn Mark, president of the state NOW, hopes common sense prevails. "If a woman is going into labor she's hardly in a position to flee," she says. "I think we have the opportunity to be a leader and set the standard for the nation."
The corrections department stands by its policy. "Correctional experts need to have the flexibility to make decisions based on sound security and correctional practices," says ACI director A.T. Wall in a statement. "We believe such decisions should not be in the hands of the legislature."
Women prisoners are often referred to as the invisible population. More women are being sent to prison throughout the country, largely because of tougher drug laws, but they are still a small segment of the prison population.
Of the 3500 inmates at the state Adult Correctional Institutions, about 200 are women. Most of the 50 or so pregnant women who enter the ACI each year are released before they give birth. Only six to a dozen deliver in prison and those are the women Ferszt is especially keen on helping.