Ronda Kinard found out she was pregnant a month after landing in Virginia's Arlington County Jail in December, 1999. Eight months later, halfway through serving a sentence for probation violation after a previous grand larceny sentence, Kinard, then 30, was rushed to the local hospital, where doctors induced her.
Her daughter, Ronique Kinard, weighing a little over seven pounds, was born Aug. 24, 2000. A few hours later, Ronda returned to jail while her infant was picked up by a family member.
Ronda’s memory of that traumatic time is fuzzy, but she insists that one aspect of her 12-hour delivery remains forever etched in her mind.
“(I was) shackled the whole time,” she claims, adding that her left leg was chained to the bed. “It was hard, uncomfortable and stressful.”
Susie Doyel, Director of Administration at the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, argues that it couldn’t have happened.
“We only handcuff a woman’s hands to her front during transportation and one hand to the rail of the bed during postpartum recovery” says Doyel, after being contacted by The Crime Report. “We do not handcuff a woman at all during labor, not even her hands.”
Kinard’s case was referred to The Crime Report by Friends of Guest House in Alexandria, Virginia, an organization that helps ex-female offenders in Virginia return to society. According to Kari Galloway, Executive Director of the NGO, four of the women in their program this year alone reported they were shackled during labor.
Moreover, the claims of Kinard and other Virginia ex-offenders that they were shackled are indirectly supported by other NGOs in the state.
Katherine Greenier, Director of the Virginia ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, reports that the state “department of corrections or local sheriffs argue that safety requires the shackling of pregnant inmates.”
Reconciling one woman’s memory 11 years later with official statements of denial may be ultimately impossible.
No National Standards
But the difficulty of confirming such stories—was Kinard shackled during delivery or only afterwards?—underscores the wider problem: there are no national standards for the treatment of pregnant women under criminal justice supervision.
In most of the U.S today, shackling imprisoned women during labor is not prohibited. (Virginia is one of 37 states that do not officially ban the practice.)
Reliable statistics, which depend on the willingness of local jail or prison administrators to report on births to women in custody, are hard to come by. Nevertheless, as the number of women in prison has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, advocates argue that a national policy for dealing with pregnant prisoners is long overdue.
Between 1977 and 2007, the number of women in prison in the United States increased by 832 percent. According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2004, four percent of women in state prisons and three percent of women in federal prisons were pregnant at the time of admittance.
In 2000, Illinois became the first state in the nation to expressly ban shackling pregnant women during labor. But in the decade or so since, only 12 states have followed Illinois’s lead.
Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has also banned the use of shackles on pregnant women under federal custody, with exceptions for extreme circumstances.
Efforts to expand anti-shackling legislation are continuing across the country, driven by a growing number of critics who consider the practice inhumane.
The practice has been condemned by the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which maintains it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
But they are running up against arguments that there are important reasons to give corrections and prisons officials the option to use such practices when they feel it is necessary.
Is Shackling Necessary?
According to Edmond Ross, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal inmates are shackled during labor and delivery when there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the woman might present a threat to herself or others, or pose a risk of escape.
Anti-shackling activists, however, say the security objections to ending shackling don’t bear up to scrutiny.
“Among the states that have restricted shackling of pregnant inmates none have documented instances of women in labor or delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, the public, security guards, or medical staff” says Greenier.
Nevertheless, she adds, “To jail and prison officials, pregnancy is not a condition that should require special consideration when addressing safety concerns.”
On the local level, opposition to anti-shackling laws comes primarily from county and local jail administrators who resist what they consider any attempts to undermine their authority, says Martin Horn, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and
Department of Probation.
Typically, says Horn, who is now a distinguished lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, legislators are reluctant "to meddle in the administrative details" of prison supervision―and decisions on shackling women prisoners in labor are considered a security issue within the purview of prison bosses.
“The prison official who changes shackling practices is at risk of being blamed if there is an escape,” Horn says.
Shackling in California
The argument for local autonomy effectively scuttled California’s attempt to revise the practice last year.
In September 2010, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill (AB 1900) that would have required the state’s Corrections Standards Authority to prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates by the wrists or ankles during transport, labor and delivery, and postpartum recovery―with certain exceptions..
The bill faced no opposition, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it anyway.
“The Corrections Standards Authority’s (CSA) mission is to regulate and develop standards for correctional facilities, not (to) establish policies on transportation issues to and from other locations,” the governor said in a letter to members of the California State Assembly.
“Since this bill goes beyond the scope of CSA’s mission, I am unable to sign this bill.”
Even when a state passes a law banning the practice, the legislation may not have an effect on local and regional jails whose policies do not fall under the jurisdiction of state department of corrections.
That’s why advocates working on the issue are lobbying for a federal law that “specifically directs local and regional facilities to amend their policies and regulations,” according to the ACLU’s Greenier.
But, she adds, supporters of a shackling ban are not necessarily counting on “a legislative fix.”
Instead, they are developing a grassroots coalition that can reach out to individual local and regional jails across the country.
Building such a coalition will be “incredibly time consuming” Greenier admits. “So the legislative avenue is the best fix as a first step.”
Norhan Basuni is a summer news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from her readers.