Ashley Denny was nearly seven months pregnant in 2022 when she was handcuffed by police during an arrest in Carroll County, Georgia. The state banned the use of restraints on pregnant women in custody at the start of the second trimester, but officers shook her off.
In early July, he said, it happened again.
“I asked the officer, ‘Please, pull over. I’m not supposed to be handcuffed. I’m pregnant,'” Denny said. At the time, she was nearing the end of her first trimester, though she believed her pregnancy was more advanced. The arresting officers did not know she was pregnant, said an officer with the Carrollton Police Department who reviewed video footage of that arrest.
Medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists widely condemn shaking pregnant people, which they argue is unethical and unsafe because it increases the risk of falls, interferes with medical care and endangers the fetus.
About 40 states, including Georgia, have passed laws limiting the use of restraints such as handcuffs, leg restraints and abdominal shackles on pregnant people in law enforcement custody, according to a Johns Hopkins University research group. Laws that seek to improve the treatment of pregnant women in prisons and jails have received bipartisan support, including the first phase of legislation, which passed in 2018 and limits the use of restraints on pregnant people in federal custody. Yet advocates say they continue to log reports of law enforcement and hospital staff ignoring such restrictions and allowing pregnant women to be chained, handcuffed or otherwise restrained.
Confusion about the law, lack of sanctions for violations and widespread loopholes contribute to the continued shackles of pregnant women in custody. But due to limited data collection and little independent oversight, getting an accurate picture of prevalence is nearly impossible.
“People see laws like this, and they say ‘check.’ They don’t know how they’re being implemented and if they’re producing the desired results,” said Ashley Lovell, co-director of the Alabama Prison Birth Project, a nonprofit that works with pregnant inmates. Party. Without oversight, these laws are “words on paper,” he said. “They don’t mean anything.”
U.S. prisons admit 55,000 pregnant people each year, according to estimates based on 2017 data from research led by Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University who researches pregnancy care in prisons and jails. “We don’t know what’s going on, that’s part of the story,” he said.
Still, news of the shackles continued to emerge, often making local headlines.
In January, a Georgia woman, 32 weeks pregnant, shivered for hours while waiting for a medical appointment and during transportation, according to Pamela Winn, founder of RestoreHER US.America, a group that works with people involved in the criminal justice system. The woman did not want to be identified because she is in custody and fears retaliation. He said his handcuffs were removed only after the request of medical staff.
Her experience was echoed by women nationwide in law enforcement custody.
Minnesota passed an anti-shackling bill in 2014, but six years later a woman from suburban Minneapolis sued Hennepin County after a wrongful arrest during which she was shackled while in active labor — an incident first reported by local media.
And despite Texas’ shackle ban, in August 2022 an officer in Harris County, which includes Houston, chained Amy Grocock’s ankles to a courthouse bench for hours.
“It was pretty painful,” said Growcock, who was eight months pregnant and worried about her swollen leg cutting off blood flow.
Sanctions on shackles go hand in hand with the reality of the country’s complex web of penal institutions. Millions of people are incarcerated in a system that includes thousands of county jails, state and federal prisons, and private facilities with varying policies. The facilities often operate with little or no independent oversight, said Corinne Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
Some ACLU chapters are complaining about violations of state bans on shacking pregnant people in prisons and jails. It appears from complaints and oversight reports that officers generally leave the law and police to interpret their own behavior, Kendrick said.
Georgia law prohibits pregnant women from contraception in their second and third trimesters and allows immediate postpartum contraception in certain circumstances. The State Department of Corrections maintains an anti-shackling policy for pregnant persons in state custody and requires reporting of violations. But agency officials, in response to a records request by KFF Health News, said there were no reports of incidents related to shackling in 2022 and as of late October.
The Georgia Sheriffs Association asked county jails to voluntarily submit data on shackles, but only 74 of 142 jails sent reports in 2022. The jail holds 1,016 pregnant women but only two inmates in the immediate postpartum period.
Association officials claim that chains are rare. “People in our prisons have a lot of common sense and compassion and don’t do anything to intentionally hurt anyone,” said Bill Hallsworth, the association’s director of prison and court services. Many rural jails do not have medical staff to check pregnancy immediately, he added.
The Carrollton Police Department, whose officers handcuffed Denny, maintained that the law did not apply when he was arrested, before being booked into a facility, according to public information officer Sgt. Meredith Whale Browning.
“This bill, it seems to me, has been widely interpreted by the people we’re asking to enact it,” said the Georgia state Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican who authored the state bill. Cooper said he had not been notified of any incidents, but added that if pregnant incarcerated women were still shaken, lawmakers would need to amend the law.
Also, some cases where fishermen tie up pregnant women fall into legal loopholes. In Texas, like many other states, officers can make exceptions when they feel threatened or a flight risk. According to a Texas Commission on Jail Standards report in April, 111 pregnant women reported being restrained in prison last year. In more than half of cases, women shiver during transport even though that is when they are most likely to fall.
The Texas commission sent memos to prisons that violated the shackling policy, but documents reviewed by KFF Health News show the agency stopped short of issuing the restraints.
Most states do not allocate funds to educate correctional officers and hospital staff members on the law. More than 80% of perinatal nurses reported that the pregnant inmates they cared for were sometimes or always restrained, and most were unaware of the law regarding the use of restraints, as well as nurses’ association positions against their use. 2019 study.
Even when medical professionals object to the ban, they usually defer to law enforcement officials.
Southern Regional Medical Center, just south of Atlanta, handles pregnant inmate patients from the Georgia Department of Corrections, Clayton County Jail and other facilities, said Kimberly Golden-Benner, the hospital’s director of business development, marketing and communications. He said doctors request that officials remove restraints when pregnant incarcerated patients come to the center for labor and delivery. But that’s still at the officers’ discretion, he said.
The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment. The state Department of Corrections maintains a policy of limiting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates to only extreme cases, such as when there is an imminent risk of escape, said Joanne Heath, director of public affairs. All staff members at facilities for women must complete an annual training course that outlines the policy, she said.
Funding will be needed for implementation to strengthen laws, such as creating model policies for hospitals and law enforcement personnel; continuous training; stricter reporting requirements; And sanctions for violations, advocates say.
“The legislation is a necessary step and brings attention to the issue,” said Sufrin, a professor at Johns Hopkins. They are “not sufficient to ensure that the practice does not occur.”
Wynn wants states to allow pregnant women to bond immediately from jail and defer sentences until after they give birth. A law went into effect in August in Colorado that encourages courts to consider alternative sentences for pregnant defendants. Florida was considered but did not pass a similar measure this year.
Restraint use is a window into the mistreatment pregnant women face in prisons and jails.
Denny said that in August he was mistakenly prescribed medication for depression and anxiety instead of nausea; Her morning sickness worsened, and she missed meals.
Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Brad Robinson said medical staff had no record of Denny being given the wrong medication.
“They don’t take you seriously,” Denny said of pregnancy care in captivity. “They should at least make sure the kids are okay.”
Grocock said his initial shackles in Houston were the first signs that officers were ill-equipped to handle pregnant people. She gave birth in a prison and lost her son less than two weeks after her arrest. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards acknowledged that Grocock, who photographed his ankle while in restraints, was shaken. But the jail supervisor admitted no other wrongdoing in his case, according to a memo sent to the Harris County Jail Commission.
“I felt like if I wasn’t already treated properly, the whole experience was going to be bad,” she said. “And it was.”
Reprinted from this article khn.orgA national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs – the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.