KINGSTON, R.I. – September 7, 2010 – Leg irons, belly chains, and handcuffs are not usually the first things that come to mind when one thinks of the maternity ward in a hospital. But for many pregnant inmates across the nation, these restraints are a standard part of their labor and delivery experience.
A University of Rhode Island nursing professor hopes to change all of that. Ginette Ferszt, associate professor of nursing, has been working nationally for more than two years to eliminate the use of shackles and other restraints for women inmates in labor. As a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at URI, Ferszt attracted national attention during the summer for her comments on National Public Radio, about the treatment of pregnant inmates.
Rhode Island remains one of the states that restrains pregnant women while they are transferred to a hospital; however, women are allowed to give birth shackle-free. “Our state is very progressive and has eliminated restraints when a woman goes into labor. We continue to fine-tune our programs at the state facility and I’m pleased to see that Rhode Island ranks high comparatively to other states,” Ferszt said.
Depending on many factors, including how far along they are in labor, Rhode Island Department of Corrections policies allow inmates to be transported in an ambulance or a facility van. “We’re one of the few states that require a female correctional officer to be present from the beginning of labor to the end,” Ferszt said.
A.T. Wall II, director of the state Department of Corrections, said that state policy strikes a good balance. “It addresses those security concerns while also remaining sensitive to inmates who are pregnant, in labor, or post-partum.”
After attending a national conference two years ago that focused on the health care of pregnant prisoners, Ferszt became a strong advocate for the elimination of shackles from women inmates in labor. With the help of Jennifer Clarke, a physician at the Rhode Island Women’s State Correctional Facility, and warden Carole Dwyer, Ferszt began formulating a survey that was sent out nationally to study the practices relating to inmates in labor.
“As a policy, shackling women during childbirth is unnecessary. I’m really disturbed by this undignified practice that occurs in our country. Where are these women going to go while they’re delivering a baby?” Ferszt said.
Ferszt sent out questionnaires to wardens in all 50 states, following up with each of them. The survey asked questions about the facility’s policies concerning prenatal care, whether a significant other may be present during childbirth, shackling during labor and delivery, and other policies. The wardens were promised anonymity, but only 19 replied.
“I was happy to see Rhode Island’s results. I’m thrilled with our warden and what we’re able to accomplish. But I can’t say that I was surprised at the practices across the country. It’s very disturbing to see how pregnant women are treated,” Ferszt said.
From the 19 prisons that responded to Ferszt’s survey, six said that they cuff a woman’s hands or ankle while she is being transported as labor begins. During the delivery, one prison said that handcuffs stay on, and four said that at least one ankle remains shackled.
“Shackling puts the women and baby at such a high risk. To see any more than just wrist restraints after transporting to the hospital is just so shocking to me,” Ferszt said.
According to Ferszt, shackling prevents women from moving into various positions and can make the delivery much harder on the mother. It also increases difficulty if a woman is transitioned to surgery for a Caesarian section.
On the other hand, Director Wall said that correctional officers take responsibility for the safety and security of the public, staff, and inmates. “Correctional experts need to have the flexibility to make decisions based on sound security and correctional practices, and such decisions should not be in the hands of a legislature.”
Ferszt credits the Rebecca Project for Human Rights for initiating the fight against shackling pregnant inmates. As a program that supports justice and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls, the project schedules a conference call each month to check in nationally with any changes being made. “We’re becoming a united voice, and when that happens, changes are made,” Ferszt said.
Although the U.S. female prison population continues to grow, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about two-thirds of female inmates are not serving for violent offenses.
“With the Rebecca Project, the American Public Health Association, and other national organizations joining the fight, this issue is coming to the forefront of political attention,” Ferszt said.
Ferszt said that she realizes every state will only make changes that they feel are appropriate. “We have to reach individuals in different states to educate them. But everyone has a different interpretation of what correction should mean in a correctional facility.”
Following her interview on National Public Radio, Ferszt hopes to keep spreading awareness to speak out for pregnant prisoners’ rights. Her presentations at nursing conferences and her published healthcare literature urge physicians, nurses, and social workers to all work on transforming policies together.
“I want to continue publishing on the issues. I just started a new project with the Rhode Island Nursing Association asking all other state associations to get involved and advocate with us,” Ferszt said.
Joining forces in the anti-shackling coalition is what Ferszt hopes can make a difference. “As a nurse, or any health care provider, we need to be advocating for our patients.”