ANNAPOLIS – In 2005, Rebecca Swope gave birth to her only child, but her experience with childbirth was very different from that of most mothers. Swope had to give birth while chained to her hospital bed.
“I delivered my only child, Hannah, eight years ago in Laurel, Md., shackled to a bed, chained like an animal, in a vulnerable position, exposed to all, without family, only prison guards by my side,” Swope said, during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Maryland does not currently have a law regarding the shackling of pregnant inmates. State and county correctional facilities employ their own protocol, but most allow pregnant inmates to be shackled and restrained while they are being transported to and from doctor appointments, while in medical exams, and even while in labor.
Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee heard a bill that would limit the practice, which some say is unnecessary, degrading and dangerous, posing health risks to both mother and fetus.
HB 829 would prohibit the shackling of female inmates who are in their second and third trimesters unless the security officers find that the inmate poses an exceptional flight risk or security risk. The bill also prohibits shackling women while they are in labor.
The long-term psychological effects of shackling was one of the main subjects of Tuesday’s discussion. Shackling has qualities of sexual abuse, said Jacqueline Robarge, founder and director of Power Inside, a Baltimore nonprofit that helps rehabilitate women after they are released from prison.
“We shouldn’t be engaged in a practice that further traumatizes women when incarceration is their punishment,” Robarge said.
Robarge said the experience leads to long-term trauma that undermines the women’s ability to recover and be reincorporated into society.
“Shackling, particularly during pregnancy and childbirth, is very similar to the abuse they’ve experienced before,” said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “If she is shackled to stirrups in a way that she can’t close her legs, a lot of fear and humiliation comes from that.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2008 outlawed the shackling of pregnant inmates except in extreme circumstances, and in October, the Virginia Board of Corrections restricted the use of shackles and ankle and waist restraints during labor.
Not all Maryland prisons and jails restrain pregnant inmates, but Robarge said she has worked with women who have experienced shackling all around the state, particularly in county facilities.
Kumar said the bill would establish a standard procedure in facilities across the state for dealing with pregnant inmates.
“If the localities are doing the right thing, they’ll keep doing it,” Kumar said. “If they’re not doing the right thing, adopt standard procedure so there’s not any uncertainty.”
Delegate Mary Washington, D-Baltimore, sponsored the bill after Power Inside contacted her.
“I had no idea that we were still doing that,” Washington said. “I know that other states had outlawed it, that federal correctional facilities don’t do it, so I was very surprised to see that Maryland did not have it as a law.”
During the hearing, Delegate Michael McDermott, R-Wicomico, asked about potential alternatives to restraints, such as having the women wear ankle bracelets with trackers, in case they do attempt to leave the hospital room.
Four people testified against the bill on the basis of public safety.
Vera Gallo from the Prince George’s Correctional Officers’ Association said that some of the pending charges against the women they have recently transported include robbery and second degree murder, and she said it would not be a good idea to allow these women to be transported without restraints.
The ACLU of Maryland voiced support for the bill on its website this week.
“The bill has a very common sense approach that says we’re not going to have our default role be indiscriminately shackling pregnant women,” Kumar said. “Instead, we’re going to adopt a rule where we’ll only use it if there’s an actual need for that.”
The ACLU has been involved in anti-shackling campaigns throughout the country. Eighteen states have restricted the practice.