(As reported I would be the one crying in judiciary)
Ryan Owens caught her first case at age 27 after becoming addicted to methamphetamine. She was sent into treatment, but relapsed almost immediately after graduating. When she got into trouble again, she went on the run, afraid of being sent to jail.
A mother with two children, she was also pregnant.
She wasn’t on the run long, however, when law enforcement caught up with her. She spent her first five days in Denver City Jail heavily pregnant and sleeping on the floor on a dirty blanket. Then she was transferred to Denver County Jail, where she stayed for a time, before being transferred to El Paso County on her due date — and then back again.
During transport, she was kept in full restraints, including ankle shackles and a belly belt, an excruciating experience. Though she begged the guards to remove some of the shackles, they refused, instead joking about whether or not the trip would make her go into labor.
“It hurt so bad,” she says. “It was miserable. I cried the whole way down there and the whole way back.”
She was in Denver County Jail when she finally went into labor. She was brought to the hospital in wrist and ankle irons, then chained by her ankle to a hospital bed. The humiliation was extreme. Worse was her inability to make use of the comforts available to other women to help ease the pain of labor, such as the hottub.
The experience, she told the Colorado State Senate and House judiciary committees, left her feeling that she’d been treated “like an animal.”
I listened to Owens testify at the House Judiciary Committee hearing and watched as her testimony resonated with others in the audience, including a former inmate who had tears running down her face. And I feel great satisfaction in knowing that what happened to Owens will never happen again — at least not in Colorado.
On Thursday, May 27, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 193, nicknamed “the shackling bill,” into law.
The bill was introduced and carried by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who learned about the shackling of inmates in labor from a Boulder Weekly investigation into the treatment of pregnant inmates (“Pregnant in prison,” cover story, Feb. 18). Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, sponsored the bill in the House.
When the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, it will regulate the use of shackles on inmates throughout pregnancy, prohibiting the use of shackles on inmates during labor and delivery, except under extreme circumstances where an inmate poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a threat of escape.
With the governor’s signature, Colorado became the ninth state to prohibit the shackling of inmates in labor.
For former inmates, like Owens, who gave birth while in custody, the new law offers a chance to heal one of the worst memories from their time behind bars.
“It’s so great,” she says. “That’s a memory that will never go away. That’s how my son came into this world. I take full responsibility for the reasons that I was there, but the fact that nobody else has to go through that is huge to me. My [labor and birth] is done and over with. It is what it is. But the fact that this is a law now — it does heal.”
For the coalition of women’s groups and medical professionals who pushed for the bill’s passage, the new law marks a leap forward for the medical treatment of women inmates and for human rights in the state’s jails and prisons.
“This takes us out of the dark ages in the Department of Corrections and our jails,” said Sen. Hudak, “and it’s long overdue.”
For me, the journalist who investigated the issue and then took the unusual step of carrying it to Capitol Hill and even writing the first draft of the bill, the new law serves as validation for what I’ve always believed — that newspapers are still capable of bringing about significant change.
Disbelief and shame
The toughest thing about launching Senate Bill 193 was lawmakers’ disbelief. Upon reading through the bill for the first time, many responded like Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.
“Do we know this really happens?” he asked.
King went on to become a vocal supporter of the bill when he learned that somewhere between 50 and 60 inmates were giving birth in chains each year in Colorado.
As my investigation revealed, how and when inmates were shackled depended entirely on where they were being held. In Boulder County, inmates were not shackled during labor, but in nearby Denver County, inmates were being shackled to their hospital beds by a long, heavy chain fixed to one ankle. In some mountain jurisdictions, women were actually being given furlough from jail to give birth and were allowed to have family with them in the hospital. DOC inmates, on the other hand, were being taken to the hospital in wrist restraints and sometimes ankle shackles and belly belts and were shackled to their beds by one extremity throughout labor — depending on which nurse and correctional officer were on duty.
Once these facts were laid out, most lawmakers were astonished and even ashamed.
Hudak says that compared to some other bills she’s carried, SB 193 wasn’t a difficult bill to explain to people. During the bill’s first hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hudak asked her fellow senators if any of them had ever given birth or been present when their spouses gave birth. She then asked whether they could imagine themselves or their wives trying to escape.
“They finished the sentence before it came out of my mouth, and they really understood that it’s ridiculous that a woman in labor would try to escape or would be successful if she tried,” Hudak says.
SB 193 prohibits the use of belly shackles and ankle irons on pregnant inmates at any point during their pregnancy, out of concern that shackling in this manner poses a danger to the fetus, uterus, and placenta should the belt put pressure on the inmate’s pregnant abdomen or should the inmate trip and fall.
The bill also prohibits the use of any kind of shackles on inmates during labor and delivery, except in extreme cases when an inmate poses an immediate danger to herself or others or represents a serious flight risk. If they are shackled, it must be done using the least restrictive restraint necessary for maintaining safety, and the incident must be detailed and saved as a public record.
Further, the bill enables inmates to have a member of the medical staff present during her strip-search on return to jail or prison.
The bill moved swiftly through the legislative process. It received the unanimous support of the Senate and passed with a single “no” vote in the House, cast by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.
“The only hesitation came from the Department of Corrections,” Hudak says.
DOC, which runs the state’s prisons, originally took a neutral position, but perhaps showed its true stance by attaching a significant cost to the bill, claiming that they would need to hire more guards if they left laboring inmates unshackled.
But the fiscal note was struck from the bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing in which Sen. Bob Bacon, R-Fort Collins, admitted to feeling ashamed that Colorado needed a bill like SB 193.
“I was particularly pleased in the Senate that they took the fiscal note off because they didn’t believe that additional guards would be necessary,” Hudak says.
After the fiscal note was removed, however, DOC took a more aggressive stance against the bill. There were indications that its representatives would ask the governor for a veto and look for ways to stall the bill until it died if it weren’t amended.
Rep. Claire Levy worked with DOC to craft a version of the bill they could support, removing language from the House version that would have prohibited shackling inmates during transportation to or from a medical facility for childbirth, as well as during the immediate postpartum recovery period. Had it not been for those changes, Levy says the bill might have faced an uphill battle with the governor.
“I’m sorry that the Department of Corrections was successful in weakening the bill in the House,” Hudak says. “They were more successful in convincing the representatives that shackling was necessary during transport. I still don’t believe it is. But as is common in the legislative process, you might not get everything you want, but this goes a long way.”
Because of Levy’s efforts, DOC testified in favor of the bill.
Although the law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, DOC plans to implement new procedures before then.
“As you are aware, our procedures were in place and different than some other jurisdictions prior to passing of the bill,” Joanie Shoemaker, deputy director of prisons for DOC, wrote in an e-mail to Boulder Weekly. “We have begun the process of changing policy and designing the tracking tool. We will implement as soon as that is finalized even if the bill has not been enacted.”
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
(As reported I would be the one crying in judiciary)