April 20, 2024

American women prisoners shackled during childbirth

Healthcare providers routinely report pregnant patients being shackled despite state prohibitions.

Women continue to be shackled in pregnancy and childbirth in American prisons, according to a report in Bill of Health, a Harvard Law School blog. About 1400 women give birth each year in prisons.

Moves are being made to reform how pregnant women are treated. In 2018, a federal law banned shackling prisoners in federal prisons unless it is absolutely necessary.

The 50 American states have different laws. According to Bill of Rights,

“Thirty-two states have some form of restriction on pregnant shackling, but only thirteen ban it broadly throughout pregnancy, labor, postpartum, and during transport; only nine states cover juveniles; only twenty states allow the physician to immediately remove the restraints if necessary; and only nine require that correctional staff stand outside the room for privacy considerations during childbirth.”

However, legal safeguards are not always observed. “Healthcare providers routinely report pregnant patients being shackled despite state prohibitions.”

Alexa Richardson, Harvard Law School student and a midwife, writes that

“Shackling during pregnancy is indicative of the arbitrary and complete physical control to which incarcerated people are subjected, at the will of correctional guards, on a regular basis. The inherent vulnerability of pregnancy highlights the inhumane nature of incarceration more broadly.

“Efforts to ban the practice of shackling during pregnancy may represent a budding consensus that at least some routine practices of incarceration have gone too far. But they also show the limited ability of lawmakers to penetrate the correctional system and protect prisoners from inhumane treatment by corrections officers, who possess nearly unlimited authority within the black box of the corrections system.

“Stronger protections continue to be needed to stop the barbaric practice of shackling during pregnancy and labor, including improved mechanisms for remedy when the prohibitions are violated.”

Of course, prison authorities see things differently. “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.”

Michael Cook is the editor of BioEdge

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