New Law Ends Use of Restraints on Pregnant Inmates as Advocates Push for More to Be Done

By Chloe Atkins, NBC News

WASHINGTON — The bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation known as the "First Step Act" put in place improvements in the care of pregnant inmates, but advocates say it was a baby step and are calling for more to be done.

The new law bans restraining federal inmates during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery unless the inmate is considered a flight risk or an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Inmates attend a prenatal class in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2016.Joyce Marshal / Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images file

Inmates attend a prenatal class in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2016.Joyce Marshal / Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images file

For many years, pregnant inmates have been subjected to restraints as a security measure, despite the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and others warning that using restraints can put the mother and baby at risk. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its policy in 2008 to bar the use of restraints on pregnant women, the "First Step Act" codified that into law.

"For too long, our criminal justice system has treated incarcerated women as an afterthought," First Step Act co-sponsor and 2020 Democratic contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told NBC News of the bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December.

With data sparse, the measure also requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to count the number of pregnant inmates, as well as keep track of the outcomes of the pregnancies, whether it is a live birth, miscarriage or abortion.

"The lack of data speaks to the fact that nobody really seems to care about what happens to pregnant women behind bars," said Carolyn Sufrin, an OB-GYN and medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Former inmate Kimberly Haven, of the Reproductive Justice Inside coalition, said of the First Step Act, "It opened up the national dialogue and brought likely and unlikely allies to the same space to have substantive conversations around criminal justice, mass incarceration, racial disparities and gender injustices."

Sufrin and a team of researchers recently published a study in The American Journal of Public Health finding that 3.8 percent of women newly admitted to federal facilities were pregnant, while there were 753 live births, 46 miscarriages, four stillbirths and 11 abortions in the span of a year.

Sufrin and others say the bill only skims the surface when meeting the needs of pregnant inmates.

The ban on restraining pregnant prisoners — advocates call it shackling — only addresses women in federal prisons, leaving out a large share of the female population behind bars.

While there isn't an up-to-date number on the total number of pregnant inmates, the nonprofit The Sentencing Project says the majority of incarcerated women are in state and local facilities, not federal prison.

More than 20 states have passed laws limiting the use of restraints and including a variety of safeguards, such as barring pregnant inmates from being restrained during transportation, childbirth, and immediately after. Utah and at least three other states also are looking at banning the practice, according to The Associated Press.

Amy Fettig, deputy director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed concern that correctional facilities often fall short when putting the requirements of new legislation into place.

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