Monday, November 28, 2022

Cooper signs pregnant prisoner protection bill into law, supported by unlikely coalition

Two Wilmington men have been sentenced to prison for distribution of heroin (Port City Daily/File)
Pregnant prisoners in their second and third trimesters and during a postnatal recovery period in North Carolina are not allowed to be shackled with the passage of a new state law. (Port City Daily/File)

Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 608 into law Friday, legislation supported by a bipartisan coalition of groups that often find themselves on opposite sides of reproductive issues.

The new law carves out a host of new safeguards for pregnant prisoners that protect the health of women and their babies. It ensures pregnant prisoners are provided proper medical care at no cost during the pre- and postnatal phases and also mandates an unrestrained infant-mother bonding period immediately following birth. 

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The legislation was crafted after medical professionals witnessed pregnant women endure labor and delivery while shackled. Shackling women before, during, and after labor can unnecessarily interfere with a physician’s ability to monitor delivery and increase the risk of complications. 

Many groups see the practice as a cruel human rights violation.

Several new protections are included for pregnant prisoners in the legislation. The legislation also: 

  • prevents state prisoners from being shackled in their second and third trimester of pregnancy, during labor and delivery, and during a six-week postpartum recovery period;
  • bans solitary confinement for pregnant and postpartum prisoners unless a correctional officer determines “an important circumstance exists”;
  • bans body cavity searches of pregnant prisoners unless a correctional officer believes concealed contraband presents an immediate threat of harm to the woman, fetus, or someone else;
  • requires pregnant prisoners to be provided proper nutrition and supplements to support the viability of the fetus and may access the full range of meal options provided by the hospital;
  • places mothers in prisons within 250 miles of their child under the age of 1;
  • permits mothers of children under 1 biweekly contact visits.

The legislation also includes basic protections for all female prisoners, requiring prisons to provide proper menstrual care and products. Under the law female prisoners must also not be subject to inspection or search while undressed by a male employee unless a female officer is not immediately present.

With the passage of the law, the Department of Public Safety, in conjunction with the state health department, must develop a training curriculum for all state prison employees so they are familiar with basic health-related information on pregnancy and the impacts of confinement, cavity searches, and restraint on pregnant inmates. All pregnant prisoners must also be briefed on information relating to prenatal care, hygiene, parenting skills, and improving the health of the fetus.

An unlikely base of support

The legislation was supported by both pro-life and pro-choice organizations that typically spar over reproductive legislative issues.

Even so, the executive director of the pro-life North Carolina Values Coalition took the opportunity to take a shot at Planned Parenthood in the group’s announcement on the passage of the legislation.

“It is rather ironic, I think, that Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, put out a statement acknowledging its support for the bill and agreeing that pregnant women are carrying babies and that Planned Parenthood cares about the safety of those unborn babies,” Tami Fitzgerald said in the release.

North Carolina is now the 35th state to ban shackling pregnant inmates, according to a Planned Parenthood press release. 

“This victory belongs to the currently and formerly incarcerated people who have fought for this statewide change for many years while enduring cruel and dangerous conditions in our jails and prisons,” Susanna Birdsong, North Carolina Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a press release. “Access to health care is a basic human right and it must be extended to all North Carolinians. This legislation is an important step to ensuring pregnant people and their babies have the care they need while incarcerated.”

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