House panel examines use of shackles on pregnant inmates

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

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DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers appear inclined to enshrine guidelines for shackling pregnant inmates into law rather than leaving it to the Department of Corrections to set policies.

Rep. Linda Miller, R-Davenport, plans to move legislation prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates if the health care professional asks for restraints to be removed, if the pregnancy is at 24 weeks or beyond, or during labor or childbirth. A leg or waist restraint would be allowed to be used after 24 weeks if the health professional treating the inmate approved.

The legislation is similar to a two-week-old corrections policy not to shackle inmates after 21 weeks of pregnancy.

A 2011 investigation by The Gazette found that fewer than 80 women gave birth in Iowa’s prison system in the previous five years. According to DOC spokesman Fred Scaletta, there had been no cases in that time when pregnant women were restrained during labor.

However, Khrista Erdman, an Iowa inmate who gave birth in 2010 while serving time for forgery, burglary and parole violations,  told The Gazette that although she was not restrained during labor or immediately after the birth of her daughter, she had been regularly restrained throughout her pregnancy — including arm, leg and waist restraints — during trips between the Mitchellville women’s prison and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. A day after giving birth, corrections officers put ankle cuffs on her. Erdman told The Gazette in an interview Dec. 27 that the restraints, coupled with her physical recovery, made it difficult to shower.

Erdman’s husband, Dan Copeland Jr. — accompanied by the couple’s daughter — recounted his wife’s experiences for the subcommittee Monday.

Scaletta defended the new policy, telling lawmakers the department believes that its policy meets all the standards in the proposed legislation.

He shared a copy of the policy with lawmakers, but much of it was blacked out for security reasons.

Scaletta sought to impress on subcommittee members the department needs “the discretion to make the decisions on how people are restrained or secured during transport.”

“We transport many different people of all different security levels,” he said. Restraints may be necessary to protect the public as well as corrections officers and medical personnel, he said.

However, several groups argued for codifying the policy.

“With all due respect to DOC, they told us they had no policy, that they wouldn’t restrain women and that stopped the bill in its tracks,” Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters said, recalling a similar discussion two years ago. “Again we’re hearing there is no need.”

Campbell encouraged the lawmakers to put the policy in law and “put the stamp of the Legislature on it.”

Miller agreed, noting later that the department’s position is not in opposition “other than the fact he doesn’t like to be told what to do.”

“We can come up with a clear, defined policy wording that will help all parties — sheriffs, arresting officers, the DOC, our hospital personnel, physicians, pregnant women and make sure we have a good baby,” said Miller, a former obstetrics nurse.

Miller plans to have another hearing to seek consensus and answer concerns about definitions and application of the law as it applies to local law enforcement, especially arresting officers who may be operating in chaotic situations and not know whether a woman is pregnant.

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