RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Board of Corrections tentatively approved regulations Wednesday to restrict the use of restraints on pregnant jail inmates after months of negotiation between inmate advocates and law enforcement officials.
The board resolved the few remaining differences during a two-hour meeting and planned to vote on the final language in November. Approval would start a lengthy regulatory process that includes a two-month public comment period and review by the governor and attorney general.
The regulations would allow pregnant prisoners to be handcuffed only in front when being transported outside the jail, and they would not be restrained at all during labor and delivery. An exception could be made in both cases if the inmate is determined to be a danger or a flight risk.
When additional restraint is called for, it would have to be the least restrictive possible and the restraints would have to be removed during labor and delivery upon demand by a medical professional. Waist chains would be prohibited in all cases.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says 17 states have passed legislation dealing with the issue, and the federal system has done so through policy.
The board spent much of Wednesday's meeting debating whether supplemental restraints should be allowed only when a pregnant inmate presents a "serious" flight risk or danger. Law enforcement officials opposed using the word "serious," saying every inmate is considered a flight risk and officers should not be tasked with assessing the level of that risk.
"I just want to make sure we're not tying our staff's hands in their ability to do their job," Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur told the board.
A coalition of organizations pushing for the regulations argued that removing the word "serious" would allow officers to simply restrain all inmates.
"We're in disagreement that the word `serious' binds their hands too much," said Katherine Greenier, director of the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU in Virginia.
Board member Cyntha Alksne agreed.
"If we have a rule that does not have `serious' in front of it, we have no rule at all," she said.
But board member Anthony Paige said that while he supports protecting the mother-to-be and child, "we also can't compromise the safety and security of the public."
The board voted to drop the word "serious." However, it did amend the regulation to add that additional restraint can be used "when the totality of circumstances creates a serious security risk." Alksne said the amendment addresses a situation where the risk stems not from the inmate herself, but from outside factors.
The board also debated whether to require jails to keep reports on the use of additional restraints separate from other "use of force" reports. That would allow someone designated by the Department of Corrections to compile an overall report for the public on how often and where restraints are being used.
Paige didn't like the idea. He said it could expose officers, who "put their lives at risk every day," to more liability.
"We shouldn't be creating a legal noose than can be put around some jail's neck later on," he said.
The board voted to table that issue, which disappointed Greenier. She said there needs to be a mechanism for accountability.
Among those who listened as the board debate the issues was Tiarra Fain of Fredericksubrg, who claims she was shackled during childbirth in 2010 when she was serving time at Rappahannock Regional Jail for forgery and giving false information to a police officer. She has filed a $10.35 million lawsuit against the jail and several officials.
"I think they're on the right track," Fain said of the board's action. However, she said she felt pregnant inmates were being discussed "like we're not human beings," and she said more work needs to be done.
Also on hand was Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, who chaired a legislative subcommittee that in February rejected legislation to restrict shackling of pregnant inmates. The subcommittee deferred to the board, which already had begun work on the regulations.
"We recognized early on that this was a complicated issue and a very sensitive issue," Cline told the board. He complimented the board on striking a good balance.
"I've always supported the process going forward," Cline said in an interview later. "It's my hope the board approves the regulations they've spent so much time negotiating."
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