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April 20, 2023

Shackling pregnant inmates would be banned in Pennsylvania prisons under proposed law

The bipartisan bill, introduced by Rep. Morgan Cephas, passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee

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Pregnant Women Bill Aditya Romansa/Unsplash

A bill that would ban the shackling and solitary confinement of incarcerated pregnant women in Pennsylvania prisons passed out of the state House Judiciary Committee this week.

Shackling incarcerated pregnant women in Pennsylvania prisons may soon be prohibited as a sweeping bill to change the way correctional facilities treat pregnant inmates advanced in the state House of Representatives this week. 

Rep. Morgan Cephas, a Democrat from Philadelphia, introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act earlier this year with support from Republican Rep. Mike Jones and Democratic Rep. Tina Davis. The legislation, which passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee, would prohibit the shackling of pregnant women and solitary confinement. It would also provide trauma-informed training for corrections officers interacting with pregnant and postpartum inmates in prisons.

If passed, the bill would provide up to three days of post-delivery bonding time for incarcerated women and their newborns, and would provide adequate visitation time between minor children and parents — male or female — that were the sole caregiver prior to their imprisonment. The bill would would prohibit full body searches of pregnant inmates by male corrections officers and would provide feminine hygiene products at no cost. 

In addition, the bill includes limited coverage of cost to transport individuals to a safe location after release. Cephas noted in a co-sponsorship memo that the number of incarcerated women in Pennsylvania has grown over the last three decades, and that making these changes ensures that the state can treat inmates with dignity while still supporting the justice system. 

"While we believe in supporting a system that serves justice, women who are incarcerated face a number of unique issues regarding their health and the health of their children," Cephas said in a press release. "We have identified a number of best practices, many of which are already in place, that we believe will not only benefit incarcerated women, but their children, families and society as a whole."

The bill was previously introduced by Cephas and former Republican Rep. Lori Mizgorski in 2021 and included the same eight best practices in the current bill. The legislation previously stalled in the Judiciary Committee, though its unanimous passage this time has legislators hopeful that the bill may soon become law. 

There are 172,700 women incarcerated in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Though that number represents 10% of the country's total prison population, women's incarceration rates have been growing faster than men's. Among them, the majority are locked up in local jails, without convictions, for property-related or drug-related crimes. Approximately 72,000 incarcerated women in the United States are in state prisons, according to PPI's March report on incarceration. 

Approximately 2,857 women were incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons in 2017, and 5% of them were pregnant at intake, according to the Women's Law Project. The nonprofit law firm explained in a resource for lawyers that Pennsylvania law already limits when pregnant women can be put in handcuffs and other restraints. 

For example, the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, which passed in 2010, prevents the shackling of pregnant women during labor or medical emergencies relating to their pregnancies. 

In some cases, correctional officers are permitted to use shackles or other restraints on pregnant women if they are deemed a flight risk or security risk, though there have been no reported escape attempts among incarcerated women during labor and delivery, the law firm said. 

Medical experts from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association and the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses have heavily criticized or outright opposed the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant women, largely due to the challenges it can present for medical staff when emergencies arise. 

"All of those things are impeded if that person is shackled to the bed, and we don't have time to be negotiating with an officer to unlock the restraints so that we can provide emergency, time-sensitive medical care," Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told NPR. "The reason that we have to have a law, to me, is because our carceral system is fundamentally gendered to imagine the default prisoner as male." 

At least 37 states have laws limited the shackling of pregnant women, with some laws banning shackling from pregnancy through delivery, WAMU reported. More than a dozen states have no restrictions on the practice, though a federal law bars the use of restraints on pregnant people in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service. 

Jones, a Republican from York County co-sponsoring the bill, said that he believes the legislation is necessary because prisons were not designed with women in mind and pregnant women should be extended compassionate considerations. 

"We need to extend grace and to treat people the way we would want our wives and sisters and daughters to be treated," Jones said in a release. 

Now that the legislation has passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee, it will move on to the full House of Representatives for a vote. A companion bill has yet to be introduced in the state Senate, though it would need to be passed in both chambers before it heads to Gov. Josh Shapiro's desk for his signature.