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ACLU disappointed with court decision on pregnant inmates

6/24/2013, 11:25 a.m.
The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) recently expressed disappointment with a federal court decision that dismissed ...

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) recently expressed disappointment with a federal court decision that dismissed a complaint filed by a pregnant inmate against the Rappahannock Regional Jail Authority. The plaintiff in the case, Tiarra Fain, claimed that jail officials violated her 8th amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment by keeping her restrained while she was in labor and after childbirth.

"It's simply common sense that restraining a pregnant woman during labor and delivery is cruel and unusual punishment," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "The judge let the jail officials off on a technicality - that a court in Virginia hasn't yet spelled out the obvious in a published decision," she concluded.

"This decision illustrates why it is so important for the Governor to sign, and send back to the Virginia Board of Corrections for final approval, proposed regulations that would limit the use of restraints on pregnant women in local and regional jails," added Kathy Greenier, Director of the ACLU of Virginia's Patricia M. Arnold Women's Rights Project. "It is well past time for Virginia to secure every woman's dignity and protect her health and the health of her pregnancy by finalizing regulations that limit the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in local facilities," Greenier concluded. "We call on the Governor to take action on the proposed rules without further delay."

A diverse coalition representing faith-based organizations, women's rights advocates, and prison reform groups (including the ACLU of Virginia and the Family Foundation) have been urging the adoption of uniform standards regarding the use of restraints on pregnant inmates at state, regional, local, and juvenile correctional facilities in the Commonwealth.

The Board of Corrections approved proposed regulations limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women at local and regional jails in 2012, but the rules are hung up in the regulatory process awaiting the Governor's approval. The Department of Corrections has adopted operational policies that govern state run facilities, but the Board's new rules are needed to limit the use of restraints by local and regional jails.

Federal courts outside Virginia have condemned the practice of restraining women during labor as a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, finding in one case that restraining a pregnant woman during labor and childbirth is "inherently dangerous to both the mother and the unborn fetus" and may "interfere with the response required to avoid life-threatening emergencies." Nelson v. Correctional Medical Services, 583 F.3d 522, 533 (8th Cir. 2009) (denying summary judgment for officer because restraining pregnant prisoner during labor clearly established as a violation of the Eighth Amendment).

Other cases finding that restraints violate the 8th amendment include Women Prisoners of D.C. v. District of Columbia, 93 F.3d 910, 918, 936 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (Recognizing that correctional authorities cannot use "restraints on any woman in labor, during delivery, or in recovery immediately after delivery" and noting prison did not challenge district court's finding that "use of physical restraints on pregnant women . . . violate[s] the Eighth Amendment") and Brawley v. State of Washington, 712 F.Supp.2d 1208, 1221 (W.D. Wash 2010) (denying summary judgment because restraining a prisoner in labor clearly established as a violation of the Eighth Amendment).

Some 18 states now have laws limiting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates. The first of these states, Illinois, passed its law in 2000. None of these states have ever reported instances of women escaping or causing harm to themselves, security staff, or medical staff while unrestrained. Moreover, restrictions on the use of restraints during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and post-partum recovery is sound public health policy supported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association.