Reflection on the Perinatal Incarceration Learning Summit

by Emily Bullins, NARAL Pro-Choice NC NPIP Intern

On Thursday, May 31st, I attended the Perinatal Incarceration Summit alongside Lynne, Tara, Nicole, and Linda from NARAL Pro-Choice NC. The conference was hosted by a collection of advocacy groups including SisterSong, NARAL Pro-Choice NC, MomsRising, and several other groups fighting for reproductive justice for women who are and have been incarcerated. One of the main focuses of this summit was an anti-shackling campaign led by SisterSong. This conference consisted of several panels that covered action plans, best practices for advocacy, and featured a panel of formerly incarcerated women who shared their lived experiences of being pregnant in prison.

This conference was actually my first day as one of the NARAL Pro-Choice NC summer interns! I found it to be a very helpful reminder of how expansive reproductive justice work can be. To be completely honest, reproductive justice for people who are incarcerated was something I had not considered when thinking about what reproductive justice looks like. I was largely unaware of the neglect and abuse of many incarcerated people in regards to their reproductive health. SisterSong raised a particularly eye-opening issue to my attention through their anti-shackling campaign. Incarcerated people who are pregnant are shackled throughout their pregnancy and often times during labor as well. This can be an extraordinarily traumatizing process to give birth while shackled because it deprives pregnant people of any agency or bodily autonomy while giving birth. Those at the summit, including myself and our NARAL Pro-Choice NC team, seemed to all agree that shackling a pregnant person is dehumanizing and degrading.

I also want to bring attention to SisterSong’s anti-shackling efforts because I found it to be a great example of direct action within an abolitionist framework. As a Women’s and Gender Studies major at UNC, I have read many different works of feminist theory. For the most part, I found the pieces insightful but lacking direct action plans. I believe there must be a symbiotic relationship between theory and direction action, and that they cannot be separated from one another. SisterSong’s advocacy provided exactly such. While we were able to theorize alternatives to the penal system, rather than focus on reform, we were also able to discuss the immediate actions needed to advocate for those currently incarcerated.

May 31 2018 Perinatal Incarceration Learning Summit

Panelists from SpiritHouse, YWCA of Greensboro, and SisterSong (L-R) discuss reproductive justice and activist strategies.

The conference was incredibly informative and its speakers and attendees alike brought so much wisdom to the table. I was very satisfied by the insistence of panelists and our hosts to raise the voices of those with lived experiences. It was a powerful reminder to remember that in public service, the question to ask is “What do you need?” not “What do I think you need?”  Our speakers included several women who had been formerly incarcerated, and I was so grateful that they would share their stories.  I believe there is no greater evidence for injustice than lived experience. In my academic career, I have learned that science and facts, though widely accepted as hard truths, can be manipulated to explain certain phenomena or promote specific goals. This is why I find personal testimony to be such a vital part of understanding why reproductive justice advocacy is needed. The stories of these women cannot be denied and were clear proof that we need to continue to work towards dismantling oppressive systems and empowering people who are incarcerated to have access to the full rights to which they are entitled.

Additionally, I was able to learn about what language to use when discussing perinatal justice for incarcerated people. A label like inmate, offender, and prisoner disempower people to be self-advocates and to know and practice the rights to which they are entitled. Also, words like criminal pass a judgement onto these people when, most of the time, we are not fully aware of their circumstances. In our advocacy, it is important to serve people without judgement or bias. I was unaware that terms like “incarcerated person” or “person who is incarcerated” are preferred to inmate. Panelists also used language that illustrated how dehumanizing and unjust aspects of the penal system can be. For example, prison cells were referred to as cages. The intentional use of that language was a clear way to frame our conversation as one with the goal of abolition. For more information and discussion about the language used to describe incarcerated people, I recommend Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed by Blair Hickman and Inmate. Parolee. Felon. Discuss by Bill Keller, both published by The Marshall Project.

We ended the conference in song led by SisterSong’s Executive Director, Monica Raye Simpson. This was a great way to conclude a day of powerful coalition building and to energize us for the next steps in our work. Overall, the conference expanded my understanding of reproductive justice and motivated me to continue as an advocate for equal and equitable access to reproductive health care for all.

Shackling Pregnant Women Violates Basic Health and Human Rights

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.


About the Author0961766

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.

Anti-Shackling: Reproductive Rights Behind Bars


by Reposted with Permission.  Original posting available here

As prison abolitionists work towards a world without prisons, public health practitioners and prison reformers must work alongside them to expose and mitigate the severe injustices that compromise the health and wellness of every person behind bars. The incarceration system is an economic and social burden that is often shrouded in mystery, feeding off of the fruits of capitalism and other oppressive systems of power.  As of 2010, the U.S holds the highest incarceration rate and the largest population under correctional control in the world.  Today, women represent the fastest growing incarcerated population. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in prison increased by 646%– rising from 15,118 to 112,797 (The Sentencing Project). Today, 1 in 25 women in state prisons and 1 in 33 in federal prisons are pregnant upon prison admission (id). However, despite a rise in female and pregnant inmates, many “correctional” facilities have failed to meet even the minimum requirements of their basic healthcare needs. Meeting this minimum requirement includes banning the practice of shackling women before and during labor and after delivery.

Shackling women during their delivery and throughout their pregnancy is a public health issue because not only does it deprive mothers of the opportunity to be fully present and comfortable during their unique childbirth experience, it is dehumanizing, oppressive, and dangerous. Shackling also puts the mother and baby at an increased risk of medical complications during and after the delivery. According to Dr. Maureen Phipps, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Community Health at Brown University, and chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist’s (ACOG) committee on health care for underserved women, “if the fetal heartbeat slows, and an immediate Caesarian-section is required, the time lost to fumbling with shackle locks could cause brain damage and even death” (Women’s Prison Association).

Report Card on Mothers Behind Bars is a 2010 collaborative effort between Rebecca Project and The Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C “to expose the conditions of confinement for pregnant and parenting women […]” (National Women’s Law Center & The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, 2010). Their report card confirms that shackling actively inhibits the wellness of a mother’s reproductive experience because “[shackling] makes it difficult for doctors to adequately assess the condition of the mother and the fetus, and to provide prompt medical intervention when necessary. [Shackling] also make the process of labor and delivery more painful” (id).

According to Healthy People 2020’s (HP2020) Maternal and Child Health objectives ( U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013), reducing maternal illness and complication related to pregnancy and increasing the proportion of infants who are breastfed are important pieces of improving overall health and well-being of women, infants, and children. HP2020 states “common [physical] barriers to a healthy pregnancy and birth include lack of access to appropriate healthcare before and during pregnancy. In addition, environmental factors can shape a woman’s overall health status before, during, and after pregnancy by: affecting her health directly and affecting her ability to engage in healthy behaviors.”

Prison is an environment that controls and limits human movement, making it difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to practice or learn about healthy behaviors. It is important for laboring mothers to move freely in order to identify comfort measures that will help the labor and delivery process go more smoothly. Shackling not only severely limits that movement, but it can cause medical complications and it prevents mothers from initiating a maternal bond with their newborn via breastfeeding (The Sentencing Project). Consequently, shackling undermines the maternal, infant and child health objectives of HP2020.  If HP2020’s maternal, infant and child health benchmarks consider the plight of incarcerated women, then addressing the issue and ending the dehumanizing practice of shackling women during their pregnancy is just one action that will help achieve HP2020 objectives and have a significant positive impact on the status of maternal and child health in the U.S.

We face a long road ahead in our struggle for reproductive freedom as about half of U.S states have yet to adopt or address any policy or law regarding the practice of shackling women before and during their labor and delivery (National Women’s Law Center & The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, 2010). 

Thankfully, the anti-shackling movement has made impressive progress that has been initiated by reproductive rights advocates from all corners of the issue . SPARK, a statewide community based and focused reproductive justice organization headquartered in Atlanta, GA, works for reproductive justice by developing radical tools to help shift the state of reproductive rights in Georgia and the U.S South (SPARK). Alongside SPARK in the anti-shackling and reproductive justice struggle is Birthing Behind Bars. Birthing Behind Bars is a national U.S campaign initiated and sustained by WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling Herstory). WORTH is ”an association of currently and formerly incarcerated women empowered by their own [birthing behind bars] experience”. They are part of the national movement to outlaw the practice of shackling pregnant mothers before and during their labor and delivery.  With their voice, WORTH has successfully moved New York State to prohibit the practice of shackling incarcerated women during their labor and delivery (id).