Boulder Weekly Investigation Leads to New State Law

Colorado becomes ninth state to prohibit the shackling of inmates in labor

BOULDER, Colo. — On May 27, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 193 into law, making Colorado the ninth state to ban the shackling of inmates during labor and childbirth. The bill was inspired by Boulder Weekly editor Pamela White’s investigation into the treatment of pregnant inmates in state prisons and jails. White was also key in drafting the legislation and pushing the bill forward.

In January, White visited the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility to talk with pregnant inmates and research the care they’re given while incarcerated. She spent the day with a certified nurse midwife, sitting in on prenatal and postpartum exams and interviewing inmates. Already aware that the state had no law regulating the shackling of pregnant inmates, not even during labor and delivery, she focused in particular on gathering information about the Department of Corrections’ shackling policy.

In the course of further investigation, she learned that each jurisdiction in Colorado had a different policy — or no policy at all — when it came to the shackling of pregnant inmates. Some allowed inmates to take furlough to give birth. Others kept inmates shackled to their hospital beds throughout labor and delivery, an experience inmates described as both painful and deeply humiliating.

On Feb. 18, Boulder Weekly published “Pregnant in Prison,” which focused on prenatal and postpartum care, but also featured a section devoted to the issue of shackling pregnant inmates.

Concerned about the impact of shackling on a voiceless community, White took the unusual step of emailing links to the article and bullet-points from her research to state lawmakers, including Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, whose aide called and scheduled an appointment with White.

“I described the issue to him — how inmates were kept under guard and shackled — and he got this strange look on his face,” White says. “He said, ‘You mean to say that they’re kept under guard, and they’re chained to their beds?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I knew right then that he understood how absurd and inhumane this practice is.”

Shaffer told White that he would grant late-bill status for a bill on shackling and suggested she take her article to Sen. Evie Hudak. Hudak agreed immediately to carry the bill.

Then White found herself in the unusual position of being asked to write the first draft of the bill.

“I’ve written lots of news articles and opinion columns. I’ve written nine published novels. But I’d never written a bill,” White says.

Several advocacy groups, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, joined in the fight to get SB 193 passed. White testified before the Senate and House judiciary committees in favor of the bill. The measure passed unanimously in the Colorado State Senate and garnered a single “no” vote in the state’s House of Representatives.

The law prohibits the use of belly belts and ankle shackles on inmates at any time during their pregnancies. It also prohibits shackling of any kind during labor and delivery except in extreme cases where an inmate poses an immediate danger to herself or others or where she represents a serious flight risk. The new law also allows an inmate to have a member of the jail or prison’s medical staff with her during her strip search upon her return from the hospital.

“I heard horror stories of inmates who’d gotten bad tears during delivery being stripped naked and having to squat and cough despite pleas to guards that it was painful for them,” White says. “Having had two babies, I couldn’t imagine that.”

White also wrote into the bill a provision that requires correctional staff to make a record any time they make an exception to the law and use shackles on an inmate during labor and delivery — and requires that those records be open to the public for five years.

“That provision was made with snoopy reporters in mind,” White says. “I want to be able to follow up and see how often DOC is invoking the ‘exceptions’ clause.”

The issue of shackling pregnant inmates is one that is gaining momentum nationwide, particularly in the wake of last October’s ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Nelson v. Norris, which found that shackling an inmate in labor constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and violates an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights. Prior to this legislative session, only six U.S. states had laws regulating the shackling of pregnant inmates. In the weeks prior to SB 193 being signed, Washington and Pennsylvania passed similar laws.

White acknowledges that it’s unusual for a journalist to be a part of passing legislation in the way that she was. Because of this, she and the newsroom staff made certain to disclose fully the paper’s involvement in their reporting, and White turned coverage of the issue over to managing editor Jefferson Dodge.

“It felt like terra incognita to us to have the editor of the paper be involved at this level,” White says. “At the same time, my research on this subject had made me the de facto expert, so when lawmakers had questions about policy in the state, they turned to me to answer those questions.”

In the end, White says, the experience proved to her that alternative newsweeklies can have a big impact on their communities, in part because newsweeklies are less timid about taking a stand on important issues.

“That’s what newspapers are supposed to do in the first place,” she says.

For more information, contact Boulder Weekly Managing Editor Jefferson Dodge at 303-494-5511, ext. 111.

For today’s article about the new law, click here.

For the original article “Pregnant in Prison,” click here.

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