By Mario F. Cattabiani
Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG - A legislative panel yesterday took the first step toward ending what critics call a medieval procedure of shackling inmates as they give birth.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a unanimous vote, endorsed the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, which would make Pennsylvania the seventh state to outlaw the practice.
"To me, it seems like something out of a Dickens novel, something that happened 200 years ago in a dark prison," said Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), the bill's sponsor.
It remains unclear, however, even among prison officials, how widespread the practice is.
A woman jailed on marijuana charges who gave birth 15 months ago in shackles lauded the vote, but questioned why it had taken so long to address a policy she called "barbaric."
"This is America, and I can't believe it is 2010 and we are just passing a bill like that," said Tina Torres, 29, of Philadelphia's Germantown section.
Torres has become the face of the issue in Pennsylvania. Her story was told recently by the BBC and Philadelphia Weekly.
Doctors at Northeastern Hospital performed a cesarean section in October 2008, while she was an inmate at Philadelphia's Riverside Correctional Facility. During 17 hours of labor, she had one wrist handcuffed to her gurney and her legs shackled together. She still has scars from where the leg irons cut into her ankles.
"It was horrible, demeaning, and something I will never forget," she said yesterday after the committee vote. "Even animals in captivity don't have to give birth in chains. I felt even less than an animal."
The charges that landed Torres in prison were dropped a month after her daughter, Adorah, was born. Philadelphia's prison system has since rewritten its rules and abandoned shackling during childbirth…