Having received dozens of pages of documents as the result of an open records lawsuit filed in February, the Rhode Island ACLU and the R.I. Chapter of the National Organization for Women said today that Rhode Island needs to join eight other states by passing legislation next year to restrict the Department of Correction’s ability to shackle pregnant inmates in its custody.
Issues surrounding the use of restraints on pregnant women prisoners by correctional institutions have been the subject of recent public debate nationwide. In an effort to examine the propriety of Rhode Island’s practices, the RI ACLU filed an open records request last September with the DOC to obtain its policies and procedures relating to the use of restraints on women prisoners when they are in labor, delivering a baby or in post-delivery recuperation. Citing “security” reasons, the Department initially refused to release the documents, prompting the lawsuit.
Recently, however, with the suit pending, the DOC agreed to turn over four relevant departmental policies to the ACLU and NOW. Although some of the pages have been heavily redacted, the two groups found troubling the information that was made available. In particular, the two organizations have learned that:
• Although women are not restrained during the actual delivery, DOC policy provides for shackling them while they are in bed recovering from labor at the hospital.
• Shackling during post-partum recuperation is done even though a guard must maintain visual contact outside the hospital room at all times and other security measures are in place.
• Pregnant women prisoners are routinely handcuffed while being transported to the hospital for delivery.
• The policies contradict each other at some points. For example, one policy requires hand restraints to be applied once the woman is in recovery, another specifies that leg restraints will be applied, and a third policy suggests restraints should be applied only when special circumstances, such as a risk of escape, are present.
The RI ACLU and RI NOW said they planned on reintroducing legislation next year to restrict the DOC’s policy of automatically shackling all pregnant women in transport and in recovery. Last month, Pennsylvania became the eighth state to restrict this type of treatment of pregnant women prisoners. RI NOW President Carolyn Mark said today: “While pregnant inmates must give up many rights and privileges upon entering a correctional institution, we as a society need to ensure that the health and safety of incarcerated individuals are never compromised. We believe that the routine shackling of pregnant inmates in transport and post-partum recovery is, in almost every instance, unnecessary and not in the best interest of the health and safety of the mother and her newborn child.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “In recent months, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and other medical groups have publicly called on policymakers to pass this type of legislation. We look forward to a favorable response from our General Assembly in 2011.”
In light of the release of the documents by the DOC, the ACLU expects to have the open records lawsuit dismissed in the coming weeks. The lawsuit was handled by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Jillian Folger-Hartwell and Neal McNamara.