When most women think about giving birth, they picture a hospital room surrounded by caring doctors and nurses who do everything they can to make mothers comfortable. Sadly, this is just a dream for the thousands of pregnant women currently in prison. According to the New York Times, about 2,000 female inmates give birth in prisons every year. Many of these women are shackled during the process, which involves harsh restraining mechanisms. Shackling most often occurs right before or during delivery, but many women are even shackled right after giving birth. This practice compromises the health and human rights of mothers and their newborn babies, and must be prevented.
Shackling Compromises the Health of Mothers and Babies
Restraints used in shackling significantly interfere with labor and delivery. Some women experience relief from labor pains while on their sides, but restraints only allow women to remain on their backs. A lack of ability to move can result in injury from movement during contractions, and medical staff may not be able to properly evaluate mother and baby. Furthermore, pregnant incarcerated women are often shackled in labor without first undergoing important tests, such as HIV transmission prevention to the baby.
Post-delivery recovery is another concern in incarcerated women. Even if the mother is allowed to give birth without shackles, she is usually placed back in handcuffs immediately after delivery. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least four to six weeks of recovery post-delivery—some women need longer depending on whether a cesarean section is used. Shackling a new mother right after delivery does not allow her the right to recover properly, and increases the risk for infection, muscle strains, and bleeding.
Analyzing the Absurdities
Many prisons try to justify shackling of pregnant women because of fears of escape. The reality is that once a woman is in labor, she is unlikely to do so. In fact, the New York Times reports that there has been no case of an unshackled pregnant woman ever escaping after going into labor. Furthermore, the fact is that the majority of jailed women are serving time for non-violent crimes, such as drug offenses, so the likelihood of violence is slim to none.
Privacy is another human rights concern surrounding this practice. In North Carolina, many incarcerated women are forced to give birth in shackles while in prison, rather than being transported to a hospital for proper care. This means that, in addition to medical staff, prison guards and other officials are in the room during delivery. New mothers are often stressed enough without having the additional worries of strangers being involved in their most intimate moments.
Other States by the Numbers
Despite the fact that 21 states have technically outlawed these shackling practices, there are significant gaps in implementation. Part of the problem is a lack of training for correctional officers. Another issue is a loophole in many state laws, which gives authorities the right to shackle pregnant women if they deem there to be any “risks.” Sadly, we often don’t hear about these cases until after the female victims are released from prison. Local jails house the highest number of pregnant women compared to federal prisons.
Another issue surrounds the shackling of pregnant immigrants who are being held in detention centers. This is partly due to the fact that illegal immigrants are often housed in county jails. While the ACLU acknowledges the fact the U.S. passed a law in early 2014 banishing shackling of pregnant immigrants, the practice still continues because of supposed safety concerns.
Making the Change in NC
When it comes to incarcerated pregnant women, there is simply nothing good about the practice of shackling. Not only is such a practice detrimental to the health of both mother and baby, it is an extreme violation of human rights. Despite the attempts of making shackling practices illegal, this continues to be a problem in North Carolina prisons. Unfortunately, the female inmates in these situations don’t have voices to solve the problem. North Carolinians must speak out for these women, and for the reproductive rights of all women.
- Health care for pregnant and postpartum incarcerated women and adolescent females. (2011, November). Retrieved from http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Health-Care-for-Underserved-Women/Health-Care-for-Pregnant-and-Postpartum-Incarcerated-Women-and-Adolescent-Females
- Lin, Joanne. (2014, January 21). End near for shackling of pregnant women. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/immigrants-rights-reproductive-freedom/end-near-shackling-pregnant-women
- Quinn, Audrey. (2014, July 26). In labor, in chains. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/the-outrageous-shackling-of-pregnant-inmates.html?_r=0
About the Author
Kristeen Cherney is a freelance health and lifestyle writer passionate about social issues. Her work has been published on numerous health-related websites. Previously, she worked as a communications and marketing professional. Kristeen holds a BA in Communication from Florida Gulf Coast University, and is currently pursuing an MA in English. When she’s not writing or studying, she enjoys walking, kick-boxing, yoga, and traveling.