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PHOENIX --Lisa Marie Cookingham, an OBGYN doctor at several hospitals in Maricopa County, often sees cases of incarcerated patients being shackled to their beds during labor—a practice, she said, puts women and their unborn babies at risk.

“I experience first-hand the harmful practice of shackling prisoners,” she testified at Arizona’s Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee in support of a bill to ban the practice statewide.

Mother’s, Baby’s Care Compromised

Cookingham testified that as recently as two weeks ago correctional officers refused to take the shackles off a woman in labor delaying the delivery of the baby by making it difficult for the mother to push.

“It was clear that the patient’s care and the care of the baby was being compromised,” she said. Eventually, the shackles were removed. “This, unfortunately, is not a unique situation, it has been repeated many times,” she added.

The physician said the use of restraint was “excessive” and didn’t take into consideration the “overall safety and health of the patients.”

Senate Bill 1184, sponsored by Arizona Sen. Linda Gray, a Republican, would prohibit correctional facilities from using restraints on a pregnant inmate in a baby’s final trimester (three months) of gestation or during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery.

The bill provides an exception for the use of restraints at the request of medical staff or if a correctional official believes the woman presents a flight risk. An amendment approved by the committee would still allow for the use of “tether chain” attached to the bed frame or a detainee’s ankle “during postpartum recovery,” if there are safety concerns. But Gray wants to ensure that the tether is long enough to ensure the woman can move.

SB 1184, which has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), found a strong advocate in Gray who is known for her pro-life stance.

Gray said she became aware of the issue through the American Civil Liberties Union and read a story in the Arizona Republic about Miriam Mendiola, who was shackled before and after her Cesarean section, by detention personnel from the sheriff’s office.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Gray.

She describes Mendiola’s treatment as “inhumane.”

Miriam Mendiola’s case came to notoriety first in 2009. But when she filed a lawsuit last December stating she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, the issue resurfaced in the public eye.

Support Across Political Spectrum

“Because this bill is trying to ensure safer delivery conditions for mother and baby, this is an issue that tends to appeal to people on all points of the political spectrum,” said Anjali Abraham, ACLU of Arizona’s public policy director.

Abraham said that pregnant inmates are a vulnerable population, and the current practice puts their children at risk.

“These inmates by and large are focused on delivering their child,” she said. “In order to ensure the safety of mothers and babies we want to have a statewide standard.”

Gray said she was glad to work together with the ACLU. “We have a couple of issues we have agreed upon,” she said.

A similar bill is moving through Arizona’s House of Representatives, sponsored by Republican Cecil Ash. That bill did not get a hearing last year.

The practice of shackling prisoners in Arizona, especially those in the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office came into public scrutiny when 2008 media reports surfaced in Spanish about the case of Alma Chacon. She alleged that a sheriff’s officer shackled both her arms and legs during labor.

Chacon was an undocumented immigrant, who was pulled over during a traffic stop by sheriff’s deputies in the town of El Mirage.

Joy Bertrand, Mendiola’s attorney, said the use of shackling would affect any pregnant woman, but she believes undocumented women are more vulnerable to the practice because state law requires that undocumented immigrants be kept in the jail without bail.

Bertrand doesn’t think that they legislators are connecting immigration policy with women giving birth, but the public does. “People saw what happened to Miriam and said: ‘What if it was my daughter that was arrested? What if it was my wife?’

No Arizona Standard

At least 14 other states have legislation banning the practice of shackling. Arizona has no uniform standard on the use of shackles.

For example, The Arizona Department of Corrections, which oversees state prison inmates, initiated a policy in 2003 requiring that a pregnant woman will not be restrained in any manner while in labor, while giving birth, or during the postpartum recovery period.

In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons barred the shackling of pregnant inmates in federal prisons except when it was necessary for security concerns.

Also, the practice of shackling women during childbirth is frowned upon by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

During the hearing, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputy chief Ray Churay--who is not opposing the bill--maintained that his agency only uses a long chain to restrain prisoners after a mother’s postpartum recovery. But Cookingham said she often sees instances of women’s ankles being restrained with a “short shackle” that would prevent them from moving.

There’s no data of how often the practice of shackling prisoners occurs in Arizona, but the bill would require correctional facilities to keep a publicly available record when they have to use shackles due to flight risk.

“One of the reasons we can’t say how often this happens is because there’s no reporting mechanism,” said the ACLU’s Abraham. But she said the multiple complaints her office has received show “it’s happened enough to be a real concern.”

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