October 1, 2022

Women prisoners shackled during birth in US prisons

Some could be violent, say prison officials

There’s always something new to be learned about life in American prisons. According to an indignant editorial in the New York Times, the practice of shackling women prisoners in New York jails while they give birth must stop. Stop? When did it begin?

It turns out that only five states have laws forbidding the practice except when the woman is a risk to herself, the baby or staff. New York will be the sixth when its governor signs an anti-shackling bill.

No one knows how widespread the practice is because no figures are kept. Amnesty International surveyed American prisons and found that almost half of all states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons permit women to be restrained while in labor. Standards for the severity of shackling vary from state to state: one leg, one leg and one wrist, both wrists, both legs and both wrists, both legs and both wrists and belly chains are the possible combinations.

Although these measures sound harsh, pregnancies in American jails are growing because the number of women inmates is growing rapidly, mostly because of drug offences. According to 2005 statistics, women comprised 7% of all US prisoners and perhaps 5% of women who enter prison are pregnant. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that about 2,000 babies must be born in prisons each year.

"Though these are pregnant women," a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections told the New York Times in 2006, "they are still convicted felons, and sometimes violent in nature. There have been instances when we’ve had a female inmate try to hurt hospital staff during delivery."

Others claim that women in labor are shackled because prison rules are unthinkingly exported to a hospital setting. "This is the perfect example of rule-following at the expense of common sense," said William F. Schulz, a former head of Amnesty International USA. "It’s almost as stupid as shackling someone in a coma." ~ New York Times, July 20; New York Times, Mar 2, 2006; American Journal of Nursing, Oct 2006

Michael Cook