A state senator moves to unshackle pregnant inmates.
The scars that circle Tina Torres’ ankle are a permanent reminder of giving birth behind bars, legs shackled together and left wrist handcuffed to the gurney. “Sometimes when I’m putting my lotion on, I look at the scars on my legs, and I’m reminded of it every time,” says the 29-year old Hunting Park resident, recounting her incarceration at the Riverside Correctional Facility for women. “I could have never prepared myself for that. Even animals in captivity don’t have to give birth in chains.”
Torres spent over 17 hours shackled during labor—five months after Philadelphia prisons had ostensibly banned the practice. Advocates hope that new legislation introduced by State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) to enact a statewide ban on shackling will put a definitive end to a practice that is both unnecessary and inhumane. “We felt that it was a barbaric relic of the past,” says Leach. “Being a man, I can’t completely understand, but I’m told that women in labor are not likely to leap over walls.”
Danyell Williams, program manager for the Maternity Care Coalition’s MOMobile at Riverside, says changes in prison policy are often implemented in a slow and uneven manner. MOMobile runs an innovative program that provides prenatal and postpartum doulas (birth assistants) to care for pregnant women at Riverside.
“If we weren’t there, I’m not sure how often that policy would be implemented,” says Williams. “That’s why this bill being passed is so important. Then it will be in black and white—no question. Breaking the policy and breaking the law are two different things.”
In June 2008, newly appointed Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla prohibited the shackling of women during labor, a widespread practice condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for being medically risky as well as “demeaning and unnecessary.” Commissioner Giorla was previously warden at Riverside and took an interest in reform, introducing the MOMobile program in 2006.
Advocates credit Giorla for taking reform seriously—but as Torres’ case demonstrates, the prison system still fails to meet the needs of pregnant inmates.
Torres, who sports a red, white and blue tattoo of the Puerto Rican flag across her left arm with the inscription “Raw and Uncut,” above “100 percent pura caña” (100 percent pure sugar), was arrested on March 6, 2008 when police found her in a house they were raiding for drugs. She was just two months pregnant at the time and spent the next eight months at Riverside waiting to see a judge—the charge was eventually dropped. For the then-mother of three, it was nearly an entire pregnancy in captivity marked by loneliness, discomfort and pain.
Being shackled during labor was just one of many dehumanizing moments Torres says she endured: When she was transported outside of the prison, a chain was wrapped two times around her body, just below her breasts and above her stomach, and then placed into a lockbox where her wrists were secured with handcuffs. A confident and careful speaker, Torres intermittently pauses to reflect on her story’s implications. “The squatting and the coughing [to search for hidden drugs and weapons]… I did even at nine months pregnant.”
Seven months into her prison stint, Torres felt nervous. She was two weeks past her due date and had spent her entire incarceration eating starchy prison food, decorating envelopes to trade for commissary privileges and sleeping on a hard prison bunk.
One night in October, she thought her water had broken. Torres says the prison nurse made a cursory visual examination and declared that everything was normal. “She sent me downstairs, and I was just like, ‘How can you determine that I haven’t leaked any amniotic fluid? You didn’t test-strip me or anything?’”
A week later, when the mother-to-be was transported to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for her monthly checkup—she received outside care because of a previous complication—Torres says that doctors found that she had little amniotic fluid left. “I went there for a [contraction] stress test,” recalls Torres. “She [the doctor] didn’t get any movement [from the baby], so of course I’m all upset. You don’t know what’s going on. You’re in prison. You know you haven’t been given the proper care.”
Thomas Jefferson did not have a contract with the Prisons Bureau, so they transferred Torres to Northeastern Hospital to induce labor. Accompanied by two armed guards, she was shackled for the drive to Northeastern and remained so as she went into labor.
Two hours later, a doula met Torres at the hospital and told the correctional officer that she was not supposed to be shackled, but the guard refused to remove the restraints. Throughout the next 17 hours and 20 minutes of labor, multiple COs on different shifts allowed her shackling to continue.
Philadelphia Prisons spokesperson Robert Eskind declined to comment on Torres’ case in particular, but wrote, “With pregnant inmates, we use handcuffs in transit, and handcuffs to the hospital bed when not in labor.” MOMobile staff confirmed Torres’ account, however, saying that shackling caused the scars around her ankles.
After initial attempts to induce labor failed, a new doctor arrived and recommended a C-section. At the doctor’s insistence, the CO removed the shackles from around Torres’ swollen ankles just before she was wheeled into the OR. The nurse refused to let the doula into the operating room.
“The whole time, I’m not even thinking about what’s going on,” says Torres, recalling the early morning of October 28. “I just want to see that my baby is fine. So finally she’s out and I cried more than she did, because I just saw that she was OK and that’s all that mattered.”
Officers reapplied the shackles just moments after the crying baby took her first breath. “I just was cut open,” says Torres. “I just had surgery...and I’m shackled to the bottom of the bed. When they took off my stockings, my ankles were bleeding. They were cut through.”
For the remainder of her hospital stay, Torres had to walk to the shower, pushing her IV in one hand, ankles shackled together. She spent two days with her newborn before being taken back to the prison. Her aunt took custody of the baby, who was later sent to stay with Torres’ mother in Georgia.
Torres says that when she returned to Riverside, she and other new mothers were placed in a crowded unit for the mentally ill. “I was a wreck,” she recalls. “I was in prison crying.”
Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware/Montgomery) expressed gratitude that his bill to prevent the shackling of pregnant prisoners was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee at a committee meeting today.
Turns out that Daniel Denvir's PW article about efforts to prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners in Pennsylvania helped push the bill through the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee this week.