Mark Allen Johnson / Zumapress

Despite anti-shackling law, pregnant prisoners say practice persists

For expectant mothers behind bars in New York state, being shackled runs the risk of medical harm, activists say

When Miyhosi Benton was escorted to court from the Orange County Jail in New York in 2011, an officer fastened cuffs around her ankles, a belly chain around her waist and shackles around her wrists.

It’s a routine procedure for prisoners attending trial, but Benton, now 26, was five months pregnant with her second child at the time. “I was shackled too tight, and my stomach was in a lot of pain,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know I could say ‘Take these off because it hurts.’”

New York state law restricts shackling pregnant women only during labor and delivery, and it was legal for Benton to be in restraints during her trial. But doctors warn of the dangers of shackling pregnant women at any stage. A new report by the Correctional Association of New York on reproductive health care recently revealed that many pregnant female inmates continue to be shackled in violation of the state’s current law.

That has prompted calls for better enforcement of current laws as well as demands for better conditions and treatment for pregnant women serving jail time, especially in light of evidence that being shackled while pregnant can pose health risks to the child and the mother.

“These are massive human rights violations that we’ve seen,” said the report’s author, Tamar Kraft-Stolar, who heads the association's Women in Prison Project, a nonprofit that has legislative authority to monitor state prisons and has interviewed more than 950 incarcerated women over five years for the study.

By the time Benton was transferred to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility after being sentenced for second-degree burglary, her due date had passed. On her fifth day in the infirmary, she jogged in circles to bring on labor.

“I wasn’t eating at all at that point,” she said, and was unable to keep down much of the food down that she was served. And when there was something she could eat, “it was just never enough.”

Benton wasn’t shackled on the way to the hospital, and she credited this to speaking up for herself, once she learned about her rights from other prisoners.

“I was very scared to say something, but I did because I just couldn’t go through that pain again,” she said.

‘I was shackled too tight, and my stomach was in a lot of pain. At the time I didn’t know I could say ‘Take these off because it hurts.’’

Miyhosi Benton

former New York inmate

Meanwhile, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who sponsored the 2009 bill that barred shackling inmates in labor, said she has been receiving complaints from women who say it continues to happen. “It’s not a question of whether it’s happening, it’s a question of what we’re going to do about it,” she said.

Montgomery said she planned to pressure the commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on the issue and push for ways to better inform inmates of their rights, including posting signs around correctional facilities.

Linda Foglia, a public information officer for the DOCCS, said the department had no comment on the report or the allegations of shackling prisoners in violation of the 2009 anti-shackling law. However, a spokesperson later emailed a statement to Al Jazeera saying it had not authorized any wrist cuffs during transportation of female inmates to the hospital after 2009 and remains in compliance with the legislation. 

Shackles can create problems for the health of the mother and the baby throughout the pregnancy, said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine’s department of gynecology and obstetrics. The restraints can make a woman more susceptible to harmful falls, for example, and the shackles themselves can also lead to complications.

“Anything that constrains or restricts the belly is dangerous to the health of the fetus and can cause trauma,” she said.

Federal prisons banned the use of shackles during labor and childbirth in 2008, and 20 states have passed similar laws. Most laws also include exemptions from these rules for prisoners who are considered dangerous.

A number of federal court cases in recent years have ruled that shackling women during labor violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which has prompted legal advocates to push for stricter legislation.

Kelli Garcia, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., said that most state laws cover labor and postpartum recovery but that shackling should be banned throughout the pregnancy. “Being in prison doesn’t mean you should be denied your basic human rights and your basic right to health care,” she said.

But there exists a gap between policy and practice, said Kraft-Stolar. The Correctional Association report found that 23 out of 27 pregnant women were shackled in violation of this statute. “We were definitely disturbed to find, through our monitoring work, that the law is being violated,” she said.

‘Anything that constrains or restricts the belly is dangerous to the health of the fetus and can cause trauma.’

Dr. Carolyn Sufrin

gynecology and obstetrics professor, Johns Hopkins

Benton gave birth in Ward 29 of Westchester Medical Center, a separate 14-bed wing of the hospital where most pregnant inmates deliver. The conditions differ substantially from the rest of the hospital, she said. “The actual hospital is beautiful, gorgeous, and then you walk into this part, and it’s dirty and run-down. You automatically feel uncomfortable.”

While in labor, corrections officers remained in the room, in compliance with DOCCS policies. When her doctors became frustrated by their proximity to the procedure, one of the officers turned to Benton directly and asked, “I’m not bothering you, am I?” Benton said. But this raised concerns of retaliation, she said.

“I didn’t want to be put in a predicament where they felt like they’d be aggressive or nasty to me in the future, so I didn’t say anything,” she said.

Sufrin said that doctors can feel intimidated by the presence of corrections officers. While completing her residency at a women’s hospital in Pennsylvania, she helped deliver the baby of a woman who was shackled to the bed before that state passed an anti-shackling law. “I was so confused that I didn’t even ask the guard to unlock her. I didn’t think it was my place,” she said. “It can create intimidation.”

After her daughter Serenity was born, Benton was allowed little time with her while she remained in the hospital. Babies aren’t allowed to stay in the ward for prisoners, she was told, which is distinct from the maternity section of the hospital. In order to see her daughter, she had to wait for an officer to escort her to the other wing, which happened rarely.

“I wanted to breastfeed my daughter, and it made it very hard, because I was only able to see her maybe once a day and only for about an hour,” she said.

David Billig, a spokesman for the hospital, had no comment on why inmates were separated from their babies.

When she returned to Bedford, Benton was accepted into the correctional facility’s nursery program, which allowed her to raise her daughter there. The program is one of only a few in the country, and she was grateful for the bonding time and the parenting classes that it offered. Still, she said she felt torn about keeping her daughter with her.

“I was conflicted because I wanted to spend time and create a bond with my child, but I also wanted her to go home with my mom because I knew she was not getting the medical attention that she needed,” she said.

Benton later found out that Serenity was born with an infection. “Taking her to the hospital was very traumatizing because I’m shackled, handcuffed … and have to carry a car seat with the baby as well as a diaper bag,” she said.

As two correctional officers walked on either side of her, Benton fell while carrying her daughter in a car seat. The shackles cut deep into her ankle, causing her to bleed. After two months in the nursery, she sent her daughter to live with her mom in Georgia.

Today Benton is back home with her both her children in New York and said her daughter is “very healthy.” But the impact of that time remains a painful memory. She paused as she remembered her daughter’s health problems while at Bedford. “It just made me feel like it was unfair, in all aspects of it,” she said. 

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