Letter: Prison shouldn’t shackle women who just had babies

Women at a Georgia prison who have given birth just days or weeks earlier are improperly and inhumanely shackled and placed in solitary confinement, while those in medical isolation for COVID-19 endure substandard conditions, according to an advocacy group.

The Southern Center for Human Rights on Friday sent a letter to the warden of Lee Arrendale State Prison, a women’s facility in northeast Georgia, expressing concerns about the treatment of women during the postpartum period and women with COVID-19 diagnoses or symptoms, as well as the general conditions and staffing levels at the prison. The letter asks the warden to take action and to respond by April 20 to outline the steps being taken to remedy the issues raised.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman did not immediately respond Friday to an email seeking comment.

At least five women at the prison who have given birth in the last six months have been shackled or placed in solitary confinement or both within six weeks of having a baby, which violates state and federal law and risks serious harm to the women, the letter says.

A Georgia law passed in 2019 says that for six weeks after giving birth, a woman may only be restrained by wrist handcuffs in front of her body and only if she poses an immediate and serious risk to herself or others or if she’s a substantial flight risk and can’t be restrained another way.

The letter describes the specific experiences of several women who said they were shackled at the wrists and ankles with a chain around their midsections for rides in transport vans, including one who had been brought out of the hospital in a wheelchair and another with staples in her abdomen from a significant post-delivery surgery. Other women said they were handcuffed while walking to the shower, with one saying that, along with post-delivery pain, made it hard for her to keep her balance while walking.

The 2019 law also says women shall not be placed in solitary confinement during the immediate postpartum period. But the letter recounts the experiences of several women who said they were placed in solitary confinement at the prison within days of giving birth, sometimes with no clothes other than the bloodied clothing they’d worn during delivery.

Women with COVID-19 diagnoses or symptoms are sent to medical isolation, where they are held in filthy cells with inadequate plumbing, electricity that frequently cuts out and insufficient access to water and personal hygiene products, the letter says. Medical isolation at the prison is almost indistinguishable from punitive solitary confinement, which can make women hesitant to report COVID symptoms and result in further spreading of the disease, the letter says.

The prison is also "grossly understaffed," which the letter says keeps women from receiving medications or medical treatment in a timely manner and results in violence because there aren’t enough guards to stop it.

Among the other alleged problems cited in the letter are inadequate access to filing grievances and legal mail being opened without the addressee being present in violation of state and federal law and Department of Corrections policy.

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