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Boulder Weekly Investigation Ends the Practice of Shackling Colorado Prisoners in Labor

Ryan Owens caught her first case at age 27 after becoming addicted to methamphetamine. She was sent into treatment, but relapsed almost immediately after graduating. When she got into trouble again, she went on the run, afraid of being sent to jail.

A mother with two children, she was also pregnant.

She wasn’t on the run long, however, when law enforcement caught up with her. She spent her first five days in Denver City Jail heavily pregnant and sleeping on the floor on a dirty blanket. Then she was transferred to Denver County Jail, where she stayed for a time, before being transferred to El Paso County on her due date — and then back again.

During transport, she was kept in full restraints, including ankle shackles and a belly belt, an excruciating experience. Though she begged the guards to remove some of the shackles, they refused, instead joking about whether or not the trip would make her go into labor.

“It hurt so bad,” she says. “It was miserable. I cried the whole way down there and the whole way back.”

She was in Denver County Jail when she finally went into labor. She was brought to the hospital in wrist and ankle irons, then chained by her ankle to a hospital bed. The humiliation was extreme. Worse was her inability to make use of the comforts available to other women to help ease the pain of labor, such as the hot tub.

The experience, she told the Colorado State Senate and House judiciary committees, left her feeling that she’d been treated “like an animal.”

I listened to Owens testify at the House Judiciary Committee hearing and watched as her testimony resonated with others in the audience, including a former prisoner who had tears running down her face. And I feel great satisfaction in knowing that what happened to Owens will never happen again — at least not in Colorado.

On Thursday, May 27, 2010, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 193, nicknamed “the shackling bill,” into law.

The bill was introduced and carried by Sen. Evie Hudak, who learned about the shackling of prisoners in labor from a Boulder Weekly investigation into the treatment of pregnant prisoners. Rep. Claire Levy sponsored the bill in the House.

When the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2011, it will regulate the use of shackles on prisoners throughout pregnancy, prohibiting the use of shackles on prisoners during labor and delivery, except under extreme circumstances where a prisoner poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a threat of escape.

With the governor’s signature, Colorado became the ninth state to prohibit the shackling of prisoners in labor.

For former prisoners, like Owens, who gave birth while in custody, the new law offers a chance to heal one of the worst memories from their time behind bars.

“It’s so great,” she says. “That’s a memory that will never go away. That’s how my son came into this world. I take full responsibility for the reasons that I was there, but the fact that nobody else has to go through that is huge to me. My [labor and birth] is done and over with. It is what it is. But the fact that this is a law now — it does heal.”

For the coalition of women’s groups and medical professionals who pushed for the bill’s passage, the new law marks a leap forward for the medical treatment of women prisoners and for human rights in the state’s jails and prisons.

“This takes us out of the dark ages in the Department of Corrections and our jails,” said Sen. Hudak, “and it’s long overdue.”

For me, the journalist who investigated the issue and then took the unusual step of carrying it to Capitol Hill and even writing the first draft of the bill, the new law serves as validation for what I’ve always believed — that newspapers are still capable of bringing about significant change.

Disbelief and Shame

The toughest thing about launching Senate Bill 193 was lawmakers’ disbelief. Upon reading through the bill for the first time, many responded like Sen. Keith King.
“Do we know this really happens?” he asked.

King went on to become a vocal supporter of the bill when he learned that somewhere between 50 and 60 prisoners were giving birth in chains each year in Colorado.

As my investigation revealed, how and when prisoners were shackled depended entirely on where they were being held. In Boulder County, prisoners were not shackled during labor, but in nearby Denver County, prisoners were being shackled to their hospital beds by a long, heavy chain fixed to one ankle. In some mountain jurisdictions, women were actually being given furlough from jail to give birth and were allowed to have family with them in the hospital. DOC prisoners, on the other hand, were being taken to the hospital in wrist restraints and sometimes ankle shackles and belly belts and were shackled to their beds by one extremity throughout labor — depending on which nurse and guard were on duty.

Once these facts were laid out, most lawmakers were astonished and even ashamed.
Hudak says that compared to some other bills she’s carried, SB 193 wasn’t a difficult bill to explain to people. During the bill’s first hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hudak asked her fellow senators if any of them had ever given birth or been present when their spouses gave birth. She then asked whether they could imagine themselves or their wives trying to escape.

“They finished the sentence before it came out of my mouth, and they really understood that it’s ridiculous that a woman in labor would try to escape or would be successful if she tried,” Hudak says.

SB 193 prohibits the use of belly shackles and ankle irons on pregnant prisoners at any point during their pregnancy, out of concern that shackling in this manner poses a danger to the fetus, uterus, and placenta should the belt put pressure on the prisoner’s pregnant abdomen or should the prisoner trip and fall.

The bill also prohibits the use of any kind of shackles on prisoners during labor and delivery, except in extreme cases when a prisoner poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a serious flight risk. If they are shackled, it must be done using the least restrictive restraint necessary for maintaining safety, and the incident must be detailed and saved as a public record.

Further, the bill enables prisoners to have a member of the medical staff present during her strip-search on return to jail or prison.

The bill moved swiftly through the legislative process. It received the unanimous support of the Senate and passed with a single “no” vote in the House, cast by Rep. Mark Waller.
“The only hesitation came from the Department of Corrections,” Hudak says.

The DOC, which runs the state’s prisons, originally took a neutral position, but perhaps showed its true stance by attaching a significant cost to the bill, claiming that they would need to hire more guards if they left laboring prisoners unshackled.

But the fiscal note was struck from the bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing in which Sen. Bob Bacon admitted to feeling ashamed that Colorado needed a bill like SB 193.

“I was particularly pleased in the Senate that they took the fiscal note off because they didn’t believe that additional guards would be necessary,” Hudak says.

After the fiscal note was removed, however, the DOC took a more aggressive stance against the bill. There were indications that its representatives would ask the governor for a veto and look for ways to stall the bill until it died if it weren’t amended.

Rep. Claire Levy worked with the DOC to craft a version of the bill they could support, removing language from the House version that would have prohibited shackling prisoners during transportation to or from a medical facility for childbirth, as well as during the immediate postpartum recovery period. Had it not been for those changes, Levy says the bill might have faced an uphill battle with the governor.

“I’m sorry that the Department of Corrections was successful in weakening the bill in the House,” Hudak says. “They were more successful in convincing the representatives that shackling was necessary during transport. I still don’t believe it is. But as is common in the legislative process, you might not get everything you want, but this goes a long way.”

Because of Levy’s efforts, the DOC testified in favor of the bill.

Although the law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, the DOC plans to implement new procedures before then.

“As you are aware, our procedures were in place and different than some other jurisdictions prior to passing of the bill,” Joanie Shoemaker, deputy director of prisons for the DOC, wrote in an e-mail to Boulder Weekly. “We have begun the process of changing policy and designing the tracking tool. We will implement as soon as that is finalized even if the bill has not been enacted.”

Reproductive Justice

Julie Krow has heard more about women’s experiences being shackled during labor than most people. Krow oversees The Haven, a residential substance-abuse treatment program for pregnant and parenting women. About 70 percent of the clientele at The Haven have entered the program after being diverted from the criminal justice system or after being released from jail or prison.

Concerned about the treatment of prisoners during labor, Krow pulled together a focus group of Haven clients who had given birth while in custody and asked them to share their experiences.

“To me, the thing that was really telling was that the experiences were all over the map,” Krow says. “Some of the women were traumatized by the experience and had had a terrible experience. Some people from some of the rural mountain towns said it wasn’t like that for them.”

It seemed to Krow that such a wide discrepancy in how prisoners were treated meant that there was room for compassion — and consistency — in shackling policies.

Krow testified in favor of SB 193 and discussed the bill with her clients during the legislative process. She was pleased to hear that the governor had signed the bill and said her clients are also happy to learn that the shackling of prisoners during labor is coming to an end in Colorado.

For Dr. Eliza Buyers, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Denver and the legislative chair of the Colorado Section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the new law means safer pregnancies and births for prisoners and the achievement of a legislative goal here in Colorado.

“The issue of shackling pregnant and laboring women is one that the American Congress of OB/GYNs has been talking about on a national level for well over five years,” Buyers says. “Providers have become involved in this issue because, beyond the physically demeaning aspects of this practice, there are also serious medical concerns.”

Those concerns include everything from possible damage to the fetus, uterus or placenta caused by pressure from belly shackles to delays in emergency treatment caused by an inability to remove shackles quickly enough.

“Labor is a dynamic, physical and, at times, very rapid process,” Buyers says. “The use of restraints on pregnant prisoners is medically hazardous, and prohibiting this practice is necessary for health providers to deliver safe medical care.”

ACOG had been hoping to present a bill in Colorado next year, but when Buyers heard a bill was being drafted, she immediately became involved. She brought a medical perspective to the drafting process and testified at both the Senate and House judiciary hearings.

Lorena Garcia, director of policy and organizing for COLOR, the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, also had plans to push for a ban on the shackling of prisoners in labor next year. When she learned that an effort was under way this year, she became actively involved in the process of drafting and lobbying for the bill.

“COLOR’s mission is reproductive justice, and being able to give birth in a humane fashion no matter the location is a piece of reproductive justice,” Garcia says. “With the passage of SB 193, it brings us a step closer now that even women who are incarcerated can also have reproductive justice.”

Garcia says she was surprised and gratified when the bill received such overwhelming bipartisan support.

“I’m very pleased to see that the state of Colorado has a vested interest in ensuring that one of our most vulnerable populations is treated fairly, and that population is incarcerated women,” she says.

Garcia says she also finds hope in the fact that, in the end, it wasn’t a lobbyist or activist group that brought the issue of shackling pregnant prisoners to the table.

“I think this process being driven by a citizen and a constituent proves that there is value in our everyday Coloradans advocating for rights,” she says.

For Owens, who graduates from treatment later this month and whose son recently turned 2, testifying before state lawmakers was an empowering experience.

“It was extremely empowering, even though my hands were shaking,” she says. “The only thing that kept going through my head was that people need to hear what really happens. People need to hear from the inside. So many times people don’t hear people like us.” This time, thanks in part to Owens, people in the highest levels of state government got the message loud and clear.

“I think the fact that another woman won’t have to feel [what I felt] is amazing,” she says. “It’s huge to me. It’s awesome. It really is.”

How the Law has Changed

Before Senate Bill 193:

• Each jurisdiction had its own policy regarding the shackling of prisoners during pregnancy, transport, labor and delivery.

• Pregnant prisoners could be shackled with ankle shackles, belly belts and wrist shackles.

• Many prisoners were kept in shackles throughout their labor.

• No medical personnel were present during prisoners’ strip-search upon return to jail or prison.

• Because records pertaining to pregnancy and birth are private medical records, it was difficult to determine exactly how pregnant women were being treated.
After Senate Bill 193:

• There is one statewide policy regulating the shackling of prisoners throughout pregnancy, including transport, labor and delivery.

• Belly belts and ankle shackles are banned for use on pregnant prisoners.

•When shackling pregnant prisoners, guards must use the least restrictive restraint possible for maintaining safety.

• No prisoner may be shackled during labor or delivery unless she presents an immediate danger to herself or others or poses a serious threat of escape, and then she may only be shackled by the least restrictive restraint necessary.

• A prisoner may choose to have a member of the jail or prison’s medical staff with her when she is strip-searched after returning from giving birth.

• Any use of shackles on a prisoner during labor or delivery must be recorded (without identifying medical information) and maintained as a public record for five years.

This article was originally published in Boulder Weekly ( on June 3, 2010, and is reprinted with permission. Pamela White is the editor of the Weekly.

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