By Kathy Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project
In a new report, Mothers Behind Bars, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and The National Women’s Law Center released results from their survey of states’ prenatal care, policies on shackling during childbirth, and family-based alternatives to jail time in prison, including giving a grade to each state.
Virginia received an F-plus, which doesn’t surprise us at the ACLU of Virginia.  Here’s a breakdown of what the report says about Virginia, along with some of our observations.
Prenatal Care for Pregnant Inmates
The Virginia Code states that “a system shall be established whereby pregnant inmates may obtain obstetrical, medical, and social services,” and Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Larry Traylor told the Virginian-Pilot that “pregnant women receive both normal and high-risk pregnancy care.”  But, according to Mothers Behind Bars, researchers did not find any policies regarding Virginia’s prenatal care for women in correctional facilities.
Actually, there are some policies in Virginia, but they are vague and limited. State policy requires pregnant inmates at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women to be transferred to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where pregnancy care will be provided by an OB/GYN Specialist from the University of Virginia.  The specialist has discretion to decide the number of visits a woman receives, and when in labor the inmate is transferred to UVA for delivery.  If there are complications during a woman’s pregnancy, she is housed in the correctional center’s infirmary.
Despite these policies, the ACLU of Virginia has received reports from women in prison stating that their facility denied them prenatal care.  Whether or not the above policies are sufficient is debatable, but at the very least the policies we have should be followed and reports on their implementation should be made available to the public.
Shackling During Labor and Delivery
Shackling pregnant women during labor and delivery is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.  All too often though, incarcerated pregnant women are subjected to shackling during labor and delivery.
While the Virginia DOC claims that they do not shackle incarcerated pregnant women, a lack of transparency about their actual policy is troubling.  Mothers Behind Bars finds that Virginia does not have a statute on shackling, and the DOC does not have a policy on the use of shackles on pregnant women during transportation, labor and delivery and postpartum recuperation.  Even more egregious is the fact that DOC does not require training for individuals handling or transporting incarcerated persons needing medical care or for those dealing with pregnant women specifically. Ultimately, Virginia has failed to limit or end the barbaric practice of shackling.
Earlier this year, when Virginia’s legislators considered a change to the law to prohibit shackling, DOC opposed it, saying the law was unnecessary. However, if DOC does not shackle pregnant inmates, why would it oppose a law that merely reinforces existing policy?  The General Assembly needs to pass a law that bans shackling of pregnant women in prison.
Alternatives to Incarceration
“Family based treatments as an alternative to incarceration” are community based programs that allow women and their children to stay together while receiving comprehensive services for the treatment of drug addiction and mental health needs.  These programs provide stability for families when mothers are incarcerated, and maximize their success in healing.  Despite the fact that these treatment centers are “less costly than incarceration and achieve better outcomes than those achieved by maternal incarceration and a child’s placement in foster care,” Virginia does not have family based treatment centers.
A Vulnerable Population  That Needs Help
Incarcerated persons often go unnoticed.  The number of women in prison has reached an all time high, yet they go even more unnoticed.  Pregnant women, who are perhaps the most vulnerable of all incarcerated persons, are an even less noticed subgroup.
Because they have virtually no opportunity to be heard on their own and because they have no natural constituency, incarcerated pregnant women need advocates to act on their behalf.  Tell your state officials that Virginia’s prison system got a grade of F-plus for their treatment of pregnant women, and you want them to do something about it.