Sheriff's deputies are shackling some female inmates to the bed during childbirth at Magee-Womens Hospital, officials there said, and the practice has prompted an outcry from advocacy groups.
Sheriff Pete DeFazio said he had no knowledge of any shackling during labor. "That's crazy. It's hard for me to believe. To tell you the truth, I don't believe it."
But Trish Nelson, the hospital's unit director for labor and delivery, said of the 15 to 20 inmates from Allegheny County Jail who give birth every year, about half are restrained by one wrist to the sideboard of the bed by a deputy.
"I would prefer they not be handcuffed at all," said Ms. Nelson, who is a nurse. "It is easier for them to move around. But if they insist on a patient being handcuffed, it is one arm to the side rail. You can still sit up and turn from side to side."
If an arm restraint impedes the delivery as it progresses, a doctor or nurse will ask the deputy to remove it. She said they usually comply.
The shackling of inmates in labor, apparently done at the discretion of the attending deputy, was confirmed by a 29-year-old woman who lives in Braddock and gave birth at Magee about six months ago. The inmate, facing drug, simple assault and theft charges, said she was upset that she was shackled on her right arm because it impeded her movement from the waist down. She said the male deputy guarding her told her he was new and that he was following orders.
A shift change occurred just as labor was beginning, she said, and a female deputy took his place. "She said, 'no,' she couldn't do it to me. She must have been through childbirth. It would have made it a lot harder."
The issue of shackling prisoners during delivery has heated up in recent years after Amnesty International USA released a state-by-state study of the practice. The debate pits security and flight risk issues against the reproductive rights of women.
One arm restraint "is better than leg irons, but why do they need it? How much of a flight risk can a woman in labor be?" asked Sheila Dauer, director of women's human rights programs for Amnesty International USA.
Only two states -- Illinois and California -- have a law prohibiting shackling of female inmates during childbirth, said Ms. Dauer, and New York is considering a bill that would ban it. Other state departments of corrections, including Pennsylvania's, have policies that bar restraints during child birth. But that body governs state prisoners, not county inmates.
Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, which decries the shackling of women in labor, said many of the women in the county jail are awaiting trial, and don't pose a flight risk. "Most of them are not convicted of anything," he said. Why should they have tighter security than women sentenced to state prisons in various states across the country, he asked.
"There are real security concerns, but why can they just have a hefty guard at the door?" said Vicki Sirockman, executive director of Lydia's Place, a Pittsburgh nonprofit group that helps women in jail. "A woman dilated 10 cm can barely stand up, much less run down the hallway."
Warden Ramon Rustin said he doubts whether a woman in labor would pose a flight risk. "It's the sheriff's call. It's his department. He doesn't tell me how to run my department, and I don't tell him how to run his."
Sheriff DeFazio said he would never shackle a woman in labor, and asked a lieutenant to look into the allegation.
He said prisoners are sometimes shackled in hospitals, depending on the operation and the inmate's history.
Ms. Dauer said leg shackles are used on female prisoners in other parts of the nation, and she asserts leg or arm restraints can put the mother and baby at risk.
"It can create medical complications," said Ms. Dauer. "One of our doctor advisers said during an emergency C-section, a five-minute delay can make the difference between brain damage or not. It is also dangerous for the woman."
But Ms. Nelson said she knows of no instances where a wrist restraint has compromised the health of a baby or mother at Magee.
Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1572. Staff reporter Jim McKinnon contributed to this report.