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Missouri considers banning county jails from shackling some pregnant inmates

Rep. Chad Perkins, a Republican from Bowling Green, is sponsoring legislation to prevent county jails from restraining pregnant inmates in their third trimester.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
Rep. Chad Perkins, a Republican from Bowling Green, is sponsoring legislation to prevent county jails from restraining pregnant inmates in their third trimester.

The Missouri House advanced a bill that would prevent pregnant inmates in their third trimester from being restrained, except under extraordinary circumstances. The bill would also create certain health care requirements for pregnant inmates and reverse the prohibition on nonviolent drug offenders receiving SNAP benefits.

The Missouri House stands poised to pass a bill largely prohibiting city and county jails from shackling women in their third trimester of a pregnancy.

In state prisons in Missouri and 39 other states, the practice is already banned. The legislation would extend that rule to city and county jails.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Chad Perkins of Bowling Green, would create a slew of health care requirements for city and county jails to follow during the booking of a pregnant inmate. It would require pregnant women to have access to 2,500 calories a day, dietary supplements and access to mental health and substance use treatment.

It would also promise pregnant inmates access to the bottom bunk and would prohibit keeping them in isolation during recovery after their pregnancy ends.

Other provisions in the legislation would allow nonviolent drug offenders to have access to SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.

Limitations on shackling in Missouri jails

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a ban on shackling pregnant women in Missouri prisons during the third trimester. Prison officials can shackle inmates who pose a flight risk or to ensure the safety of correctional officers, nurses or others.

Perkins said the bill would apply the standard for the Missouri Department of Corrections to all county and city jails.

“We’re not necessarily talking about the mother any more than we are the unborn child,” Perkins said during a January hearing on the bill. “As a state, we have an obligation to protect that.”

When the 2018 law passed, some of Missouri’s major counties adopted the practice in their jails. St. Louis, Jackson and Boone counties all prohibit the use of restraints during the third trimester.

The bill would allow the use of restraints under extraordinary circumstances, and if restraints are required, only wrist restraints in front of the body could be used. Similar bills have been filed in the Senate by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a Republican from Arnold, and Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.

The House legislation is HB 1777. The Senate legislation is SB 905and SB 1012.

The bill drew support from groups that may not typically align. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion organization, both backed the bill. Nationally, an estimated 58,000 people are pregnant every year when they enter local jails or prisons, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends against shackling anyone during pregnancy, labor and the postpartum period.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed theFirst Step Actinto law, restricting the use of restraints on pregnant people in federal prisons.

The Missouri bill prohibits shackling up until 48 hours after a pregnancy ends. It mimics legislation penned by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group. The ALEC bill goes further than the proposal in Missouri by prohibiting the use of restraints during the duration of pregnancy, during labor except under certain circumstances and up to 30 days following delivery.

If shackles are required, jail officials must document why they were used within 48 hours.

Activists on the left also back more protections for pregnant inmates.

“All aspects of the bill have been a long time coming,” said Gwen Smith, the criminal justice policy manager at Empower Missouri, an anti-poverty advocacy group. “We’re really hopeful to see it pass this year.”

Concerns over how counties would keep up

Diana Knapp, the director of the Jackson County Detention Center, was one of the few who testified in opposition to the bill in January. Speaking on behalf of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, Knapp told lawmakers that preventing the use of restraints could present challenges to smaller counties battling chronic understaffing andjail overcrowding.

Jackson County already follows the restraining provisions laid out in the bill. But she said counties that have fewer staff, no 24/7 medical personnel and limited options for transportation could find the bill burdensome.

Limiting the use of restraints during transportation, for example, could mean that during an overnight shift with only three correctional officers on duty, two may have to take a pregnant woman requesting medical care to the hospital.

“The way I read the proposed bill is that, during transporting, their expectation would be no restraints of any kind,” Knapp said. “We consider that a serious safety hazard. We’re just very concerned about the kind of language that would take that discretion away from the security experts and put it in the hands of medical personnel.”

The bill would also require pregnant inmates to wear a seat belt during transport. Some counties have updated vehicles with seat belts, said Jackson County Detention Center deputy director Michael Cunningham, but some still use vehicles like school buses that don’t have seat belts.

If jails were less crowded, the bill would be less of a concern, Cunningham said.

“They use the jail as the interim holding location,” he said. “And they do that for mental health care as well. So that’s the biggest challenge for us, is the absence of putting them where they should be.”

Empower Missouri has lobbied for the bill. Smith said the bill does a good job of helping reveal where improvements can be made at the county level.

“It does a really good job of kind of highlighting where those gaps are, and where we need to be returning to the drawing board,” Smith said.

Other aspects of the bill would prevent children from being shackled during juvenile court appearances. It would also require the Department of Corrections to provide things like a state-issued photo identification, a Social Security card and documentation of any job training or certifications on a resume before an inmate is released from prison.

It would also require the DOC to offer “good time credit,” or remove time off of a person’s sentence, if they obtain a high school or college diploma, complete substance use treatment or complete restorative justice programs.

 This story was originally published by The Beacon Kansas City, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Meg Cunningham is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter.
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