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SC poised to abolish shackling pregnant inmates after Statehouse acts

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SCDC cameras in prisons (copy)

South Carolina Department of Corrections employees monitor a bank of computer screens that gives them a view into every prison in the state. A measure moving through the General Assembly would add South Carolina to a growing roster of states that already limit the use of shackles during childbirth. File/Andrew Brown/Staff 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina civil-rights groups and prison-reform advocates scored an unexpected victory on Tuesday when House lawmakers used time in between their coronavirus related work to push through a measure barring state and locally run detention centers from shackling pregnant inmates.

Even the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, was surprised her proposal was plucked from the calendar for action. Its strong bipartisan support and unanimous backing in the Senate showed its worth, she said.

“This is a really big one,” Mace said. “It took a lot of people coming together on both sides of the aisle to make it happen, and I’m just really humbled to see that even during a crisis, in South Carolina, we’re getting things done in a nonpartisan way to make our state better.”

South Carolina is one of six states without a law limiting the use of shackles during childbirth, putting it out of compliance with the federal First Step Act of 2018.

Tuesday’s 117-0 House vote marked the second time in a year Mace’s proposal won broad floor approval, with lawmakers in April 2019 backing it 104-3.

But the provision didn’t make it through the Senate before last year’s cross-over deadline. The Senate in March voted 42-0 to prohibit restraining of pregnant inmates.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster, told The Post and Courier on Wednesday the governor “has every intention” of signing the bill when it reaches his desk.

Leg, waist and ankle restraints wouldn’t be allowed to be used on pregnant inmates, and wrists can’t be bound in a way that would prevent a woman from protecting herself in case of a fall, the legislation dictates.

Federal prisons are barred from restraining pregnant inmates as the result of a criminal justice reform package signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 — unless the women pose a safety risk to themselves or others.

As of Wednesday, the state prison system has 1,163 female inmates; four are pregnant, according to state Department of Corrections data.

The bill headed to McMaster is broader in scope than Mace’s original version, with amendments added requiring availability of menstrual hygiene products, access to adequate nutrition, an end to solitary confinement for pregnant prisoners and weekly contact visits between incarcerated people with low- or minimum-security classifications and their children.

State-run facilities ended the practice of shackling pregnant inmates in early 2019, and Director Bryan Stirling “fully supports” the reform package, officials said.

State Sen. Mia McCleod, D-Columbia, said in committee talks in February she wanted to halt “invasive cavity searches” of pregnant inmates and a ban on moving women to restrictive housing within 30 days of giving birth.

Both amendments were added to Mace’s bill.

“You’ve got conservatives and left-leaning groups coming together to make this happen. This is one of those areas where we can really show some compassion as lawmakers,” Mace said. “I was just thrilled we were able to do it so clearly and concisely."

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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