Giving Birth in PA Prisons

A state senator moves to unshackle pregnant inmates.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 23 | Posted Jan. 19, 2010

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Photo by Jeff Fusco

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.”

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Comments 1 - 23 of 23
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1. CJ said... on Jan 19, 2010 at 11:33PM

“Ummmm, don't get pregnant before you're about to goto prison dummies. Screw them and this out-of-touch senator.”

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2. Kate said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 08:19AM

“Gee CJ, such compassion! Such a nuanced and well thought-out position! Did you actually read the whole story, where it was mentioned that the charge against her was dropped (after eight months in custody), or did your lips get tired?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 05:17PM

“That is cruel and inhumane! I can't imagine what the rationale is for shackling a woman giving birth to a baby. Do they really think they can run and get far if they are in labor? Obviously these are rules created by MEN!!!!!!!!!”

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4. Zoe said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 08:38PM

“That is INSANE what they did to her! I'm appalled that in 2010, in the USA, that this is happening. It seems like some sort of medieval torture. There is no reason that this should happen to a birthing woman, whether she has commited a crime or whether her charges were dropped. It is unsafe and unethical. I hope she sues for damages and gets awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars and that she persues her dream of becoming a nurse.”

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5. Zoe2 said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 09:05PM

“....and not to mention the fact that they didn't give her prenatal care in jail.....nor did they give her the proper nutrition for a healthy baby....and they subjected her in internal searches during her ninth month??? Are they crazy? It's amazing her baby even came out alive. Shackled......and she was incarcerated for a NON VIOLENT crime. WTF??? I hope she gets a millions bucks after her lawsuit.”

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6. Bette Begleiter said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 08:10AM

“Daniel Denvir’s article brings important attention to an often ignored population - pregnant incarcerated women. While highlighting some problems that have occurred, what is left out is the story of the many improvements that have taken place. Maternity Care Coalition’s MOMobile® program was welcomed by Commissioner Louis Giorla and the PPS and we have worked collaboratively to improve conditions for pregnant and newly parenting women. Most significantly, it is now routine practice (and has been for some time) that women in active labor are not shackled. In addition, after meeting with us, nutritional choices for pregnant women improved and we worked together to let women know that there are healthy options at the prison commissary. Finally, with a new obstetrician and nurses at Riverside, pregnant women’s healthcare has improved. Our program has had tremendous support from Commissioner Giorla and is a model of a public/private partnership working to improve services and support.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 12:20PM

“I agree with CJ. This is prison, not a resort or spa. Think about the welfare of your unborn child before you decide to commit any sort of crime. It's unfortunate that this happened to her but cry me a river.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 11:44PM

“Well she is my sister and she is no drug user nor is she a prostitute....For the one who has NEVER Sinned..Please feel free to cast the first stone! Sometimes your just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's the rule that you pay for your actions, but don't you think being pregnant in prison was punishment in itself?? The shackling during labor and delivery was just over doing it! Thank you Lord that my niece is healthy..Some people miss the point....That it's not alway's about the"PLACE" it's about the "PEOPLE"!!! It could have been anyone's family member. No one plans a pregnancy with prison being part of the plan...”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 10:03AM

“I was astounded to read that pregnant women in labor are shackled. This is a clearly cruel and inhumane practice that has no place in our society. The officials responsible should be subject to disciplinary action. I applaud Senator Leach for taking steps to assure this practice is illegal.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 11:36AM

“Regardless of the crimes they've committed (or did not commit, in this case), every prisoner deserves to be treated humanely, and no woman should be subjected to the torture of heavy chains while pregnant. And regardless of your opinion of the mother, no would would disagree that the baby is innocent, and deserves both prenatal care and a safe birth.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 12:19PM

“17 hours in labor is already an ordeal, but delivering a child in shackles is something that no human being deserves. Kudos to Torres for her bravery and persistence in the face of the overwhelming obdurateness of the prison system. I'm glad to hear your baby is healthy and well.”

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12. Ray said... on Jan 22, 2010 at 12:25PM

“I Think we should have more love for one another than such unhamine jest or negetive thoughts that does not allow us to do unto others as we would like it to be done to us! Yes laws are put in place for those that do not know how, or want to control themseleves. In causes for minor and sometimes major punishment, but so sad that they had to carry a situation like this to this extent. I thank God and applaud Senator Leach for taking steps to band this type of practice as well. Love will cover a multitude of sin america.”

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13. Regina Jordan said... on Jan 25, 2010 at 03:37PM

“Everyone past the age of 12, Know right from wrong. When will people take responsibility for the chioces that they make before they open up their legs and commit a crime and then end up in prison expecting the public to have any kind of sympathy for their current situation.”

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14. Melissa, L&D RN said... on Jan 26, 2010 at 04:50AM

“1. She didn't commit a crime; the charges were dropped. She was awaiting trial when her baby was born. Google innocent until proven guilty and make sure you have your facts straight before you get on your high and mighty responsibility horse.
2. This isn't just an issue of her comfort during labor and delivery; shackling in labor, in addition to being cruel and inhumane, is potentially dangerous. Sometimes laboring women need to change positions quickly to get oxygen to their babies more effectively. Plus, she has scars on her ankles. Infection risk, anybody? Bueller?
3. This isn't just about shackling. You cannot tell if water is broken by visual exam alone. That prison nurse, if the article is accurate, was negligent, and she put both mom and baby at risk. That's not okay; I don't care if the mom's a murderer.
5. If you can't see yourself or a loved one in a similar situation you're a moron. She was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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15. Tina Torres said... on Jan 28, 2010 at 04:18PM

“First of all I want to thank everyone for their opinions both good and STUPID:P As they will both contribute to my growth and my fight against this barbaric shit that's happening to women right here in the U.S of A. And thank you Danielle, you're awesome. And for the losers that think that it's just for any woman to experience that. You're the reason, minds like yours, is why our government has gotten away with so much screwed up shit. Any stress that I was put under affected my baby you dorks. And guess what!!? I'm awesome! And real soon, it will be against the law to do this to any woman no matter the crime. Because of people like me and Senator Leach, people who realize we leave in a civilized society. That we walk on two legs, not four.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 2, 2010 at 01:23PM

“They only shackle one leg you bleeding hearts. By the way it's a jail not a joke! I hope she got the bill for the services.”

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17. Demia said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 04:39PM

“I agree with Torres totally and completely. Anonymous you say that jail is not a joke but what if you are arrested for too many tickets and not for murder would it seem right to be shackled while giving birth then. We are not animals and we do not deserve to be treated like we are. Not being able to hold your baby freely after giving birth is a horrible position to be in. Think about it, if this was your mother, your aunt, or your sister would you still feel that shackling during child birth is still right? Shackling while giving birth is asolutely absurd and it should be stopped.”

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18. Melissa L&D RN said... on Feb 4, 2010 at 07:25PM

“Oh, they only shackle one leg?

First of all, citation?

Second of all, well I guess that makes the scars on that one leg and her inability to change position independently okay then.

Third, at least I have a heart.

Fourth, she was never charged with anything. And even if she was, the constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, and anything that compromises one's health is cruel and unusual. Safe, competent medical care is a human right.

Keep fighting this Tina. You are brave and you are strong.”

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19. said... on Mar 9, 2010 at 03:41AM

“Ok obviously this woman made some poor decisions, she was associating herself with the wrong people. Does that make it ok to give her shitty medical care, or put an innocent child at risk? NO I cant believe this is happening. I have been to jail (although i did not give birth there) and been pregnant. Someone needs to do something about the medical systems in jails and prisons, and just to let everyone know i had alot of medical bills after i got out! You have to pay over $300 dollars a month to be housed in our jail plus all of the medical bills. Its quite overwhelming to someone who just got out with no job and no money! I hope this woman has sued because she WILL get PAID!! And I hope her child and her have a very happy very prosperous life...Once again im disgusted and sickened!GOOD LUCK TINA!!!!!!!!!!”

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20. Anonymous said... on Nov 21, 2010 at 10:43AM

“The children of these inmates deserve for the mother to get good prenatal care so they are born healthy. They are innocent no matter what their mothers have or have not done. The shackling during labor is completely unncessary and medically dangerous. I can see guarding the room, they are in prison after all. I must say the idea of an in house nursery in prison is ridiculous though and I hope that never comes to pass. Give the children to family to be taken care of until mom gets out.”

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21. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2011 at 11:23PM

“@CJ and "Anonymous"-

First off, most people don't plan to go to prison. Secondly, most pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. These women most likely come from poor neighborhoods where, aside from having jobs (most likely paying minimum wage with no benefits), they find that they need to engage in illegal behavior in order to put food on the table. Or maybe their partners are involved in illegal behavior and these women have to help or they become victims of domestic violence because their partners are violent.

Furthermore, it is likely that these women do not have health insurance or access to birth control or even an OB/GYN. They also probably went to a poor school where there was little or no or abstinence-only sex education. Or maybe their partner rapes them. Or maybe they were raped by a stranger and that's how they became pregnant.

In other words, don't say ignorant things about something that you know nothing about.”

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22. Anonymous said... on Nov 23, 2011 at 04:57PM

“I realize that people make mistakes and really think this was cruel. I do have one question did she know about the drugs? I can understand that the charges were dropped which only means that they couldn't prove that she had anything to do with them. My question is did they actually find any drugs there and did she know about them? If the answer is yes then her biggest mistake was being there when she was pregnant, obviously she now knows that was a mistake and I only hope that she doesn't associate with those people anymore. What the prison did was cruel but if she knew and was there anyways then she did deserve to be in jail, as that is putting her unborn child at risk. I actually knew someone who had her kids taken away because she was at someone's house who had drugs in their house and she did not know. She was charged with child endangerment and lost custody AND SHE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW.”

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23. Poppy said... on Jan 14, 2015 at 07:15PM

“It is SO important that inmates are given the proper care throughout their pregnancies! I feel like this is an issue that isn't addressed anywhere near enough. Just because someone has broken a law doesn't dismiss them as a person and it doesn't mean they don't deserve proper childcare. Children shouldn't be punished for their parent's poor choices and not having been properly cared for before they are born can negatively effect the children when they're born. Great post.”


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