Iowa prisons relaxing restraints for late-term pregnant inmates

Shackling policy first brought to public light in Gazette special report in January 2011

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UPDATE: The Iowa Department of Corrections has changed its policy on restraining pregnant inmates, a hot-button topic in Iowa and across the nation.

The new policy will prohibit corrections officials from restraining pregnant inmates who are 22 weeks or more in their pregnancies unless they pose an immediate security risk, department spokesman Fred Scaletta said. The previous policy left officers more discretion and resulted in some women being shackled immediately before and after labor.

"When you are pregnant and swollen, especially the handcuffs and belly chain is tight and can be painful," wrote Khrista Erdman, an inmate at the women's prison in Mitchellville. "The restraints make worry about falling, and about your baby's safety."

Erdman, 34, and two other Iowa female inmates filed statements with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa about how they were restrained while pregnant in the prison system. The Gazette profiled Erdman when she gave birth to her daughter, Jeweliana, on Dec. 26, 2010.

Erdman, serving time for forgery, burglary, theft and parole violations, was brought from Mitchellville to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in early December 2010. Like nearly all pregnant inmates in Iowa, she was taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to give birth.

Guards restrained Erdman through her seventh month of pregnancy with devices that included leg shackles, a belly chain and handcuffs, she wrote in the statement to the ACLU.

Angela Hollingsworth, another inmate, said she was shackled immediately after she gave birth to twins through a Cesarean section.

"It was extremely painful, embarrassing and uncomfortable having to go back and forth (to the bathroom) in shackles, on medication, picking up my twins, getting into a step-up bath tub," Hollingsworth wrote. "I stumbled several times."

Erdman and Hollingsworth were involved several months ago in an attempt to smuggle drugs into the prison, Scaletta said.

Erdman's husband, Dan Copeland Jr., disputed the drug allegation against his wife. He's also doubtful the prison system will stop restraining late-term pregnant inmates.

"I'll believe it when I see it," Copeland said. "In late 2010, they told the Legislature they didn't do it and it wasn't part of their procedure."

Copeland, who is raising 2-year-old Jeweliana, said Erdman will go before the parole board in April.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have condemned the practice of restraining pregnant inmates, saying it could harm the baby or mother. Other states, including Washington state, have prohibited prison and jail officials from shackling most pregnant inmates.

Similar bills have also been drafted in Iowa, but not passed.

Prison births are rare in Iowa, with 17 to 26 pregnancies in each of the last five years. These women are pregnant when they come into the prison system. Pregnant inmates receive the same prenatal care as other women, with regular doctor visits, vitamins and procedures that include ultrasound.

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