NEW YORK – For nearly four hours before she gave birth, Venita Pinckney had a chain wrapped around her swollen abdomen. Her ankles were shackled together and her hands were cuffed.
The 37-year-old was in a maximum-security prison for violating parole. An officer told her the use of restraints on pregnant inmates was "procedure."
"I'm saying to myself, 'I feel like a pregnant animal,"' said Pinckney, who was taken from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to a hospital for the birth of her boy last year.
At state prisons around the country, jailed women are routinely shackled during childbirth, often by correctional staff without medical training, according to civil rights organizations and prisoner advocates.
The practice has been condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for unnecessarily risking women's health, and court challenges are pending in several states.
Federal prisons and five states largely ban shackling pregnant women in prison. Gov. David Paterson is expected to sign a law this week that would make New York the sixth state to do so.
"A woman giving birth to a child is hardly the first person that is going to be thinking of trying to escape or create any kind of problem," the governor said last week.
Correction departments and unions have argued that any broad-stroke policy that bans shackling could put medical staff and correctional officers at risk.
"We certainly use a common-sense approach regarding shackling, whether it's females or males," said Donn Rowe, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which represents 23,000 state employees. "A blanket policy ... doesn't fit all cases with something of this nature when you're dealing with some possibly dangerous inmates."
Erik Kriss, a spokesman for New York's Department of Correctional Services, said the state law would put staff at risk, noting the inmates are felons.
"They can coordinate on the outside to facilitate an escape. We have to be vigilant about those kinds of things," Kriss said.
It isn't clear how many inmates nationwide are affected by the practice. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics said 4 percent of state inmates and 3 percent of federal inmates were pregnant in 2008 when they were first incarcerated. Data weren't available to indicate how many women delivered babies in prison or were restrained while doing so.
Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Rebecca Project for Human Rights, said her organization is researching state-by-state data. Kriss said 43 New York inmates gave birth in 2008, but didn't know if any were "mechanically restrained."
The bill awaiting Paterson's signature would ban restraints on inmates giving birth, except when needed to keep a woman from injuring herself, medical staff or correctional officers. In those cases, women would be cuffed on one wrist while being taken from prison to the hospital.
Similar laws exist in Texas, Illinois, California, Vermont and New Mexico, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Legislatures in Massachusetts and Tennessee are considering bans, too. Advocates say the bans haven't led to any escape attempts.
Tamar Kraft-Stolar, who works for the Correctional Association of New York, has lobbied for a law banning shackling. She said her organization had helped interview 15 to 20 current or formerly jailed women who said they were shackled during labor, delivery or recovery from childbirth in state prisons in 2008 and 2009.
The use of restraints, she said, "depended on which correction officer was on duty."
Trevor Lippman, an attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said that his organization still hears of cases even in states with written policies limiting the use of restraints.
Several lawsuits challenging the practice are pending throughout the country.
In Washington, former prison inmate Casandra Brawley sued in June saying she was shackled by a metal chain around her stomach while being transported to the hospital, and then fastened by a leg iron to a hospital bed through hours of labor. It was only because a physician objected to the restraints during an emergency Cesarean section that they were removed, the suit said.
The Washington Department of Corrections has a policy prohibits shackling in such cases, but there is a "disconnect in state policy with the prison policy itself," said Brawley's attorney, Sara Ainsworth. The agency has said that it would investigate Brawley's claims.
In Nashville, Tenn., a woman accused the county sheriff's office of improperly restraining her before and right after giving birth to a son in July 2008. The sheriff later agreed to stop restraining inmates, unless they posed a danger. The woman, Juana Villegas, filed a federal lawsuit in March.
Four former Cook County, Ill., inmates filed suit in June against the county sheriff's department saying they were shackled to their hospital beds during labor.
Pinckney, of New York City, gave birth to her son, Savion, in November while serving a two- to four-year term for violating parole on a 2001 drug conviction. She says she was kept in shackles during the entire trip from the prison to the hospital — until she was placed in a hospital room where guards could oversee her.
"I think that's just too much," Pinckney said. "That's too much to bear."
Since being released from prison in December 2008, she has been living with her son at a re-entry program in Queens.