Georgia Dignity Act protecting incarcerated women is now the law in Georgia

The Georgia Dignity Act, effective Oct. 1, 2019, forbids invasive strip searches of women prisoners in their second and third trimesters and limits when and how pregnant women shall be restrained while in custody. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the law May 7.

JONESBORO—Pamela Winn, like other Clayton County prisoners, was shackled hand and foot as she left the privately-run Robert A. Deyton Detention Center in Lovejoy for her court date in 2008. Unlike most others, she was pregnant.

When she tried to step into the van, she slipped and landed hard on the ground, unable to break her own fall. She started bleeding that night and asked for a doctor. But it was days before Winn saw the prison doctor, and several more weeks before she got medical care on the outside.

Finally, she miscarried in her cell, as two male guards fumbled around beneath her, then, according to Winn, said they'd thrown her fetus in the trash.

Winn learned she was pregnant during intake at Deyton, as she began serving a five-year sentence for healthcare fraud. Although the federal Bureau of Prisons forbade shackling pregnant prisoners, Deyton did it anyway. 

The prison is run by the GEO Group, a federal contractor. When the miscarriage happened, Winn asked for the sheets, but said the guards told her they'd tossed them. When the Independent, a British news organization, asked for records of any grievances or complaints, GEO group said they didn't have any.

Winn's story and others like it drew a bipartisan response from both the Georgia Assembly and the U.S. Congress. In Georgia, State Rep. Kim Schofield (D-60) coauthored House Bill 345, signed into law May 8 and in effect as of Oct. 1.

Under the new law:

• A pregnant woman shall not be required to squat and cough during strip searches in her second and third trimester;

• A pregnant woman shall not be required to undergo any vaginal exam unless prescribed and performed by a licensed health care professional;

• A custodian shall not use handcuffs, waist shackles, leg irons or restraints of any kind on a pregnant woman who is in her second or third trimester, in labor, in delivery or in the immediate postpartum period;

• In the first six weeks after delivery, a woman may only be cuffed in front "and only if there are compelling grounds to believe" she presents "an immediate and serious threat of harm to herself, staff or others" or "a substantial flight risk and cannot be reasonably contained by other means."

• If a woman suffers complications and a doctor extends the postpartum period, the cuffed-in-front law applies.

• A custodian must document such cuffing within two days, noting the nature of the circumstances and how long the woman was in restraints. The officer in charge shall review the documentation and the penal institution shall retain it for reporting purposes;

• Medical restraints by a licensed health care professional are allowed for a pregnant woman's medical safety;

• Pregnant or postpartum women shall not be placed in solitary confinement, administrative segregation or medical observation in solitary confinement. However, she can be placed by herself in a hospital room or cell.

In addition, the law provides that "a pregnant woman who is temporarily held in a county jail pending transfer to a state penal institution be transferred as expeditiously as possible." The Department of Corrections and the county sheriff "shall make all reasonable efforts to facilitate such transfer." This transfer rule does not apply to a pregnant woman sentenced to jail by a county judge.

If you or someone you know is or was incarcerated in Clayton County or another facility while pregnant, the News would like to hear from you. Please e-mail robin.kemp@news-daily.com with your experiences.

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