New bills ban shackling pregnant people in prison

By: - March 13, 2020 3:20 pm

Sen. Erika Geiss | Anna Liz Nichols

Updated, 6:52 a.m., 3/17/20, with comments from the Department of Corrrections

Under newly introduced legislation, an employee of a correctional facility would not be permitted to restrain an incarcerated individual who is pregnant or is in postpartum unless a prison administrator and the treating medical care provider deems it “reasonably necessary” and safe. 

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) spoke Thursday at a press conference about the two bills that look to improve welfare for pregnant individuals and all women incarcerated in Michigan.

State Senate Bill 830 would allow for several standards to be put into place, including allowing incarcerated individuals to have one visitor in the room during labor and delivery, with two others in the waiting room. It would also prohibit corrections officers from being in the room during labor and delivery.

Twenty-two states currently have laws against shackling during childbirth.

Siwatu Salama-Ra | Anna Liz Nichols

Formerly incarcerated mother-turned-activist Siwatu Salama-Ra spoke at the press conference, along with other stakeholders, saying she wishes that no one ever has to give birth under the conditions she had to. The experience of being in the unit of pregnant women in Huron Valley Correctional Facility intensified the fears associated with incarceration.

“It is filled with women who are already so emotional naturally because they are pregnant, but also the fear and pain and worry that they will soon give birth alone, shackled,” Salama-Ra said. “The fear of not being heard and not being seen as a woman or person that is carrying life, the reality of that must change.”

Incarcerated individuals who are in labor or have given birth in the past three days would not be allowed to be restrained by an employee of a correctional facility, unless the person is a flight risk or there is an extraordinary medical or security circumstance, according to the bill. The employee would still need permission from a prison administrator and approval from a medical care provider.

While incarcerated individuals are being transported, an employee of a correctional facility would not* be allowed to restrain a pregnant or postpartum individual with leg irons, waist chains, handcuffs or any device that crosses or touches their abdomen.

Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Chris Gautz said many of the provisions in SB 830 are already policies, such as not shackling individuals in labor and allowing a family member in the delivery room.*

“With issues as important as this, details matter and there are differences between our policies and the bill, so we need time to study them fully before we offer a position,” Gautz said. “What we do support our are policies, which clearly address a number of the issues this bill is meant to address.”*

Michigan's Department of Corrections
Department of Corrections | Susan J. Demas

Gautz said it is currently policy that each pregnant incarcerated individual makes a pregnancy plan through a pregnancy coordinator and a counselor. Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only women’s prison, offers Lamaze and birth education classes and allows individuals to see a labor coach or doula twice prior to delivery and throughout labor, he said.*

Salama-Ra said if she was allowed a loved one in the delivery room, her blood pressure might have been lowered. She asked, what would have happened if she had been allowed to breastfeed her newborn son or been allowed more time with him?

“If these bills pass, these what ifs would never exist for another pregnant person in prison,” Salama-Ra said.

The bill says if ever a restraint is used on a pregnant or postpartum individual a full report of the rationale, type of restraint and reasons for the medical care provider’s approval must be documented.

Incoming females 50 years old or younger would be offered a pregnancy test upon arriving at a facilities reception center. Pregnant individuals would be allowed to make a birth plan with a physician, midwife or doula.

The facility would have to ensure an incarcerated individual who has given birth in the last year can produce breast milk and be given increased visitation with their nursing babies under 37 months old. Individuals would have access to breast pumps and clean refrigerator storage for their milk.

Pregnant or postpartum incarcerated  individuals would not be allowed to be placed in isolation and under SB Bill 831 all the regulations in Senate Bill 830 would be monitored by a new Women’s Prison Oversight Advisory Committee.

The duties of the committee would be to monitor mental and physical health of women in prison and to look at nutritional and sanitary needs. 

Sen. Erika Geiss | Anna Liz Nichols

The committee would report to and be appointed by the legislative corrections ombudsperson and consist of a physician specializing in high-risk pregnancies, a nutritionist, a doula, a formerly incarcerated individual, a social worker and more.

Geiss said her conversations with incarcerated women and the physicians who have treated them show problems at Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

She said that there is no doubt that the care that women have received there has resulted in unnecessary medical distress “that will lead to intergenerational trauma that will affect families for years to come.”

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.