Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners Under Review in Texas

Shela Williams was 18 weeks pregnant when jailed on a probation violation. She remembers being chained to a hospital bed when she went into labor about a month later, and said law enforcement officers refused her midwife's request that the restraints be removed so she could give birth.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office denies that Williams -- who gave birth to a stillborn son -- was shackled while in labor at Brackenridge Hospital, an act that would violate its policies. A preliminary review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which oversees county jails, found no violations.

But Williams repeated the assertion Thursday after filing a formal complaint with the commission, triggering an in-depth review of each of Williams' allegations. She also said she was blocked from attending her son's funeral.

"I was chained to the bed the whole time," Williams tearfully told commissioners during their meeting in Austin. "The state had to bury my son, and I was not able to go to his funeral at all."

Sheriff's spokesman Roger Wade said in an interview that Williams "received every bit of medical care that she could possibly get." Wade said she never filed a complaint with the sheriff's office, but acknowledged the county was reviewing Williams' formal complaint to the commission.

Williams' criminal record shows she had been convicted of criminal trespass in 2012, and sentenced to two years of probation.

After she was arrested in July, Williams told jail staff she had a high-risk pregnancy; she was told her baby had spina bifida, a defect that affects the development of the spine. It took weeks for her to see her specialist, and then on Aug. 13, doctors couldn't find a heartbeat and induced labor.

After the birth, she "repeatedly and assertively" asked to attend her baby's funeral, but her behavior was considered "belligerent" and she was instead put on lockdown, according to her complaint. She was released from jail on Sept. 2.

Commission executive director Brandon Wood told Williams he was sorry for her loss and that the commission would investigate her complaint.

Restraining pregnant inmates during labor, delivery and recovery isn't permitted under Texas law, unless it's deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the inmate, the baby or staff, or if the inmate is attempting to escape.

Wood said about 470 pregnant women are detained in county jails statewide on any given day, but many don't stay incarcerated for long. Commission investigators reported that there were 24 inmates who gave birth while incarcerated last year, Wood said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Texas Jail Project and the Austin-based nonprofit Mama Sana/Vibrant Women, have recommended that the commission make several changes, including improving documentation of when restraints are used and defining "shackling."

Wood said the commission is investigating whether county jails are complying with state law, which also requires a written explanation when restraints are used. So far, he said, the commission hasn't been able to verify any complaints  

In the Legislature, bills were recently filed that would require a review of how county jails treat pregnant prisoners and require county jails to file annual reports on restraints used on pregnant inmates.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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