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Despite Laws, Pregnant Women in Custody Still Restrained, Shackled

Medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, condemn shackling pregnant people, which they argue is unethical and unsafe because it increases the risk of falls, hinders medical care, and endangers the fetus. About 40 states, including Georgia, have passed laws limiting the use of restraints such as handcuffs, leg restraints, and belly chains on pregnant people in law enforcement custody, according to a Johns Hopkins University research group. Laws that seek to improve the treatment of pregnant women in jails and prisons have drawn bipartisan support, including the 2018 federal First Step Act, which limits the use of restraints on pregnant people in federal custody. Yet advocates say they continue logging reports of law enforcement agencies and hospital staffers ignoring such prohibitions and allowing pregnant people to be chained, handcuffed, or otherwise restrained, according to the Georgia Recorder. Confusion over the laws, lack of sanctions for violations, and loopholes contribute to the continued shackling of pregnant women in custody.


U.S. jails admit 55,000 pregnant people each year, estimated Carolyn Sufrin, a gynecology and obstetrics associate professor at Johns Hopkins University based on 2017 data. In January, a Georgia woman, 32 weeks pregnant, was shackled for hours while waiting for a medical appointment and during transport, says Pamela Winn of RestoreHER US. America, a group that works with people in the criminal justice system. The handcuffs were removed only after a request from medical staffers. The experience was echoed by women nationwide in law enforcement custody. Strengthening laws prohibiting shackling will require funding for implementation, such as creating model policies for hospitals and law enforcement; continuous training; tighter reporting requirements; and sanctions for violations, advocates say. “The laws are a necessary step and draw attention to the issue,” said Sufrin. They are “by no means enough to ensure the practice doesn’t happen.”

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