HARTFORD, CT — Advocates told the Judiciary Committee Wednesday that shackling an inmate while she is pregnant – or telling an inmate to use her sock when she runs out of feminine hygiene products – is not just offensive, it’s also inhumane.
The group of advocates and lawmakers are seeking to change how the Correction Department treats more than 900 female inmates in their custody.
The legislation, proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, would prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor and during the postpartum period. It would also create a system to give pregnant inmates more support.
Last month, a female prisoner gave birth in her cell. The incident is still under investigation.
Gail Johnson, the head of UConn Health’s inmate services, told the CT Mirror: “It was actually a very good outcome, even though it may not have happened traditionally. You know if she would have gone to the hospital, she would have been chained to the bed; here she was in a cell. So you know, sometimes the perception sounds terrible but the reality is that she was very grateful for the help she was given for delivering her child.”
The UConn Health system said Johnson “misspoke” and “does not have that knowledge first hand.” They said that’s not the protocol any longer for labor and delivery.
In 2015, the department adopted a directive that says before they put a pregnant or post-partum inmate in leg irons or other restraints, they have to consult with the Health Services Unit for approval.
“If the Health Services Unit determines that placement in leg irons or other restraints are not medically advisable, no such restraints shall be used. For an inmate in the third trimester of pregnancy, no leg irons shall be used unless the Shift Commander determines that security reasons dictate otherwise and the Health Services Unit does not find this medically contraindicated. Restraints shall not be used on an inmate in labor or during delivery.”
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said the department has not followed that directive and while she only has anecdotal information about it happening since then, it’s the reason why the legislation is necessary.
“The restraining and shackling of pregnant women is common despite the policy that currently exist,” Porter said. “Second, the shackling and restraining of pregnant women is widely opposed.”
She said shackling pregnant women is a health risk to incarcerated mothers and their unborn children.
“Regardless of how you feel about these women these kids didn’t ask to come here,” Porter said.
She said restricting the use of restraints does not jeopardize safety. She said the majority of women who are in prison are there for non-violent crimes.
Also, as a mother, Porter said she can say from experience that there’s no way that a woman in labor is going anywhere.
She said Correction Department Commissioner Scott Semple is doing a good job, but he’s not going to be commissioner forever and once he’s gone the policies he’s put in place can be rewritten.
“There is a big difference between a directive and actually having a law on the books,” Porter said.
Heather Evans, with the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, said a pregnant woman has a shift in her center of gravity as she accommodates the increased weight of pregnancy.
“All pregnant women are at risk for falling,” Evans said. “However, leg and wait restraints may increase these risks.”
She said restraining a woman during labor should be considered “medically unethical.” She said forcing the woman to lay immobile may cause injury to the mother and the baby.
The legislation would also allow female prisoners to pump and store their breast milk so their babies could benefit.
The legislation also requires the state to provide female inmates with feminine hygiene products for free and “in a quantity that is appropriate to the health care needs of the inmate.”
Tiheba Williams-Bain, founder of The New Freedom Fighters: Women Against Mass Incarceration, and a former inmate herself said it’s not as if they don’t get hygiene products. It’s that they don’t get enough.
“It’s not enough to sustain us through our menstrual cycle,” Williams-Bain said.
She said when she asked a male correction officer for more he said “you shouldn’t have come to prison.”
She said she doesn’t believe they should be punished for going through their natural menstrual cycle.
Alexandra Brown, a member of the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice project, said when she asked a male correction officer for more feminine hygiene products she was told to use her sock.
Brown said they would generally hand out 10 products per inmate for the month, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. She said they were not allowed to have any more than 20 in a cell she shared with another inmate. If they did they could get written up.
Semple said he went to York to speak with inmates and find out if they were receiving enough hygiene products. He said the inmates he spoke with were satisfied with the number they were receiving. He said “not knowing anything” the products he brought some samples home to show his wife and she gave her approval.
He said the lieutenant in charge of the units will be given a box of sanitary napkins and tampons and inmates should be able to receive more than they usually receive if they ask for them.
Sandy LoMonico, an organizer for the ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice project, said most of the correction officers are male and there’s sometimes not a lot of understanding of what female inmates have experienced.
She said the bill will provide “dignity” for women.
The legislation would require between four and eight hours of training on mental health issues for correctional staff. It also requires the Correction Department to come up with policies regarding the safety and protection of transgender inmates.
The Judiciary Committee has until next Wednesday to forward the legislation to the Senate.