Howard unchains pregnant prisoners

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was yesterday forced into an embarrassing U-turn over the shackling of pregnant women prisoners in hospital - but he refused to apologise to those who have been chained in the past.

Only days after ministers were publicly defending the controversial policy, Mr Howard announced that no pregnant woman should be held in chains once she enters a maternity unit - whether for an ante-natal checks or in labour.

Prisoners attending hospitals for other reasons would "generally" continue to be restrained, he said, unless the governor decides they are unnecessary following a thorough risk assessment.

The retreat followed a sustained barrage of criticism from health, maternity and human rights groups over the "degrading and inhuman" use of chains on pregnant and ill women - and an apology to the Commons by the Prisons Minister, Ann Widdecombe, for misleading MPs over the issue.

Labour seized on the Government's discomfort saying the chaining of women was symbolic of its "arrogance and inhumanity". Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, told Mr Howard: "You have been driven to this humiliating retreat not by decency or by compassion, but by panic at the avalanche of bad publicity.

"A wider apology is now required from you, yourself for the brutal and unnecessary humiliation which your policy has forced on a number of pregnant prisoners."

Mr Howard insisted, however, that it was an "operational matter". The Prison Service had a responsibility to balance the need to hold prisoners securely with the duty to treat them with humanity and to maintain their dignity and privacy. "The modifications I have announced will, I believe, allow the Prison Service to strike a reasonable balance on behalf of the public," he said.

At a news conference following Mr Howard's announcement, the acting director-general of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt, said he had been unhappy with existing policies. Mr Tilt said: "It does not concern me if anyone thinks this is a climbdown. That is a secondary matter."

He said the policy had always been that women in labour should not be handcuffed but that it was difficult to define the onset of labour.

"We were putting our staff in a very difficult position and our own policy was proving unsatisfactory in its result." He said the aims of safety and treating pregnant prisoners humanely were incompatible. "What we've done is to shift more towards the humane aspect."

However, it became clear that the climbdown would not satisfy Mr Howard's critics who maintain the use of chains breaches human rights conventions and United Nations agreements, which state that "chains and irons" should not be used as restraints. At least two women who have been shackled during labour, are pursuing legal actions against Mr Howard and a third women, ill with the HIV virus and chained for nine days, is also considering suing.

Yesterday a joint statement from a variety of maternity, health and women groups, including the National Childbirth Trust, made it clear that they wanted a complete ban on the use of chains.

"We totally reject shackling of women prisoners. Shackling is degrading and potentially damaging to the health of mothers and babies."