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Last week, I wrote about developments in Congress and several states to stop the practice of shackling pregnant women. Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee in one of those states, Iowa, has changed a bill setting limits on shackling to one that charges the Department of Corrections with making rules on shackling.

A wide range of groups supports the original bill, including medical associations and traditional adversaries such as the ACLU and the Iowa Right to Life Committee.

But law enforcement and corrections agencies have lined up against it. State prison officials say that they have already changed their policies in response to media coverage last year detailing women’s experiences being shackled.

“I think it’s a compromise,” said the sponsor, Senator Janet Petersen. “It keeps us moving in the right direction.”

Next Steps

The Legislature still needs to pass the revised bill. If it does, the Department of Corrections would have 60 days to begin writing the rules, which will be published in the Iowa Administrative Code.

The Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee meets monthly to review proposed rules, and members of the public can participate in these meetings to share their perspective.

In order to change the rules in the future, the Department would have to initiate a new process that includes notice to the Legislature and public; or, if the Legislature is not satisfied with the rules, it can go back to the drawing board and pass a new law.

The bill directs the Department of Corrections to spell out when restraints can be used, but also specifies certain conditions. For example, corrections officers should use the least restrictive restraints, and use them only when they determine that a particular woman is likely to escape or is a serious threat to herself or others.

The final rules will apply to pregnant women in any state prison, county jail, or municipal holding facility.

Ultimately, a statute is a stronger expression of a state's commitment to end shackling, but administrative rules provide greater protection than corrections policies, which in Iowa and most states are withheld from the public.

Support for Birthing Women

The bill includes an important provision allowing women to have a support person when they are in the hospital. Subject to approval, women can choose someone they know to be with them during labor and birth, such as their partner, mother, or a friend.

This measure is very important for women’s emotional well-being and would be a great improvement over the current situation. Typically, women go through labor and childbirth with no one at their side beyond the medical staff and the corrections officers who are there to guard them. In some cases, women are meeting the doctor who delivers their baby for the very first time.

Seeing a critical need, doulas have approached jails and prisons in a number of places to offer their services to women. In Massachusetts, the Prison Birth Project provides childbirth education, support groups for mothers, and hands-on support during labor and birth to women in a regional jail.

The Maternity Care Coalition’s MOMobile does similar work with women in the Philadelphia jail, and Isis Rising works with women in the state prison in Minnesota.

These valuable initiatives are the exception, even though the doula model of care is associated with positive birth outcomes, including lower rates of cesarean births.

Senator Petersen told MomsRising, “I sponsored the legislation because I believe Iowans have a right to know the maternal health policies we have in place for pregnant inmates and detainees. It’s hard to believe restraints are still being used on pregnant women when medical evidence shows their use is unsafe, not to mention inhumane.”

If adopted and implemented, Iowa’s bill will make giving birth a little less scary for women in custody.


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