Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 9 January 2010

The US women shackled during childbirth

Across the USA, women prisoners have been chained while giving birth to prevent them from escaping, but some states are abandoning the practice in all but exceptional circumstances, as Laura Trevelyan explains.

Tina Torres
The charges against Tina were dropped but the memory of what happened will never leave her

Tina Torres shows me the scars on her ankles, which just will not disappear.

She has tried all manner of creams but the marks from the leg-irons she wore while she was in labour with her daughter Adora are there for life.

Tina was in a Philadelphia jail waiting to be tried when she went into labour and was taken to hospital under armed guard.

Her arms were crossed and her wrists were chained with a lock box. Her ankles were shackled together with leg-irons.

Only when she had an emergency caesarean section did the chains come off.

They were replaced immediately after the operation, to prevent her from escaping.

The leg-irons closed in on her ankles, cutting into her flesh until she was bleeding.

Tina feels she was treated like an animal and says no woman should have to go through what she endured.

The charges against Tina were dropped but the memory of what happened will never leave her.

'Handcuffed to bed'

Inside the Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, a women's jail where two thirds of the inmates are waiting to be tried, the prison commissioner has now changed the policy on shackling during labour and delivery.

Riverside Correctional Centre, Philadelphia
Tougher sentencing has led to many more women going to prison

Women no longer give birth in chains.

For Rose Marie, a former inmate who now helps with a mural-painting programme inside the jail, that change came too late.

She gave birth to her son with her wrist handcuffed to the hospital bed.

"I begged them to help me," Rose Marie told me, "but they wouldn't. It was horrible. I nearly broke my arm trying to get in the right position to give birth to my son."

"Would you have tried to escape while you were in labour," I asked. Rose Marie looked at me in disbelief. "Of course not," she said, "it was the last thing on my mind, I was having a baby."

The Philadelphia prison commissioner Lou Giorla was lobbied to change the policy on shackling by the Maternity Care Coalition, a group which runs classes inside the jail for pregnant prisoners, to help prepare them for the birth.

Staff also act as doulas, or birth partners, for the inmates.

Danyelle Williams, a forthright woman who teaches the classes, told me she was shocked when she saw a prisoner giving birth shackled.

"These women are not Hannibal Lecter," Danyelle told me.

Few defenders

The prison commissioner explained that, once he was convinced there was not a risk to the public, he decided to change the policy on shackling.

Even if Senator Leach's bill passes and female prisoners in Pennsylvania do not have to give birth in chains any more, they are still parted from their babies at birth

"An escape is the worst thing that can happen in our business," Lou Giorla reminded me.

Prisoner's rights are not exactly a high political priority in America, where the emphasis is on making it, not failing.

America has a quarter of the world's prisoners, despite having about 5% of the globe's population.

But even in a society with such high incarceration rates, shackling is a policy with few defenders.

So says Daylin Leach, a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, who has brought forward a bill to end shackling in all the state's jails.

So far he has encountered little opposition and hopes it will become law at the end of this month. That would make Pennsylvania the seventh state to ban shackling during labour in all but exceptional circumstances.

But even if Senator Leach's bill passes and female prisoners in Pennsylvania do not have to give birth in chains any more, they are still parted from their babies at birth.

'Second chance'

There are only a few prison nurseries in American jails. Yet the number of women in prison increased by a staggering 800% in the 30 years between 1977 and 2007, so the prison system is having to confront the problem of mothers in jail.

Kimberly Foster was expecting her fifth child when I spoke to her. She was preparing to have her baby fostered by a family from the Mennonite religious community in Pennsylvania.

Kimberly wept as she told me how hard it was going to be for her to have the child, then hand it over to strangers and return to a place she hates.

"I am never coming back here," she told me. "I made bad decisions, things didn't work out, but this time I want to fulfil my potential."

Lauren Butler, who had her first baby just two days before I interviewed her, was equally determined. "Giving birth to my son has changed my life," she said.

A few days later, Lauren was released and she was reunited with her baby, given the second chance she so desperately wanted.

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