DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa state prison officials have revised their policy on restraining pregnant inmates, and lawmakers are considering changes that could become law.
The Department of Corrections' old policy allowed restraints to be used until inmates were admitted to a hospital for delivery. They were shackled as soon as 24 hours after giving birth.
The new policy prohibits inmates who have been pregnant for at least 22 weeks from being restrained unless they pose an immediate risk. Prisoners will remain unrestrained after giving birth until they are released from the hospital.
John Baldwin, the state corrections director, said he changed the policy this month after a review from the department's medical staff, the Des Moines Register reported Friday (http://dmreg.co/W4rbc4 ).
"Obviously, it's becoming an issue, not only in Iowa but nationally," Baldwin said.
The American Medical Association, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Public Health Association oppose the use of leg shackles on inmates in their final weeks of pregnancy, largely because of the possibility of medical complications.
Medical experts say physically restraining women in their final weeks of pregnancy increases their risk of falling or getting deadly blood clots and can keep them from receiving timely medical care.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals Service, American Correctional Association, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies limit restraints on pregnant inmates. At least 18 states have laws that prohibit or limit restraints on pregnant inmates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a 2009 Arkansas case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a woman was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by being restrained during labor and almost immediately after delivery.
Rita Bettis, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said the Legislature should pass a law that would ensure the state's policies on restraining pregnant inmates are clear and correctly followed, and that can remain unchanged without thorough review.
"We know that women in Iowa have been subjected to severely unjust and dangerous treatment while incarcerated and pregnant," Bettis said. "The women who have lived through this inhumane and degrading experience deserve for the department to be accountable and so do the incarcerated women who are currently pregnant."
The Iowa Board of Corrections last year unanimously voted to support a bill to establish in law restrictions on restraining pregnant inmates. It included language that would generally discourage restraints during any point of an inmate's pregnancy. Exceptions would require correctional officials to file a public record within 10 days showing why they restrained an inmate.
Baldwin said he opposes such a law, noting that prison officials must balance the inmate's treatment with public safety.
"Truthfully, I don't think there's a need for this. Our current rules and regulations are very appropriate," he said. "We try to do a balancing act, and we think this new policy will allow our staff a clear direction."
He said the department's intent is not to restrain pregnant inmates "but if someone earns that right, we will."
Jerry Dunbar, president of Iowa State Sheriffs' & Deputies' Association, also objects to a state law. Local law enforcement officials often must confront people high on drugs or off their medications, said Dunbar, who is the sheriff in Washington County.
"I think there are some distinctions here," Dunbar said. "When the Department of Corrections gets them, they're not intoxicated."
Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, a retired nurse, said she understands Dunbar's point and believes there's room for compromise to allow officials to evaluate each situation and use their professional judgment.
"I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna, and I'm not antilaw enforcement. I'm just saying, let's do some common-sense things here," she said. "I recognize these women broke the law at some point, but that said, they're still human beings."
Miller and Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, are working on a proposed bill that would limit restraints on pregnant prisoners.
Inmates who are pregnant are typically assigned to the Oakdale state prison in Coralville for the last trimester, and they deliver their babies at University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City. There were between 17 and 26 pregnancies of Iowa inmates in each of the past five years, prison records show.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com