We have no idea how many U.S. prisoners deliver babies each year, but some organizations, like the ACLU, estimate that 4% of the more than 200,000 women admitted to U.S. jails and prisons each year are pregnant. Amy Fettig, deputy director of their National Prison Project at the ACLU, says that “thousands” give birth. And a 2010 statement from the American Journal of Nursing claims that 6% of women in jails are pregnant.
According to Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars, “The only data we have comes from a 1997 survey by the American Correctional Association of about 47 state prison systems,” she says, “and that reported 1,400 births … We have zero systematic information on how many incarcerated women have miscarriages, abortions, stillbirths—basic vital statistics.”
Bottom line: In one of the most highly regulated systems in the world, we haven’t even bothered to do a basic demographic count.
Another fact: In most states, it is legal to shackle women during childbirth.
“Shackling,” according to the American College of Gynecologists, is defined as “using any physical restraint or mechanical device to control the movement of a prisoner’s body or limbs, including handcuffs, leg shackles, and belly chains.” It’s opposed by Amnesty International, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and the ACLU. North Carolina enacted a ban on the practice at the end of the March 2018.
According to Common Dreams, eight states have no laws governing it whatsoever: Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina, Indiana, Maryland, Georgia, and Maine. Then it gets murky: 20 states ban it during actual childbirth, but have no laws governing it, in various combinations, during transport (while the woman is in active labor) or in postpartum recovery. Physicians mostly do not have the authority to remove restraints, and these rules don’t always apply to juveniles.
But even when it’s banned, it still happens. A 2015 survey by the Correctional Association of New York found that 23 out of 27 women surveyed gave birth while shackled, despite New York’s 2009 ban on the practice.
Now take a moment to think back on your own labor and childbirth experience. Remember, particularly, how you moved: how you held yourself up on your hands, how you delivered in something other than the traditional flat-on-your-back position. How someone held your hand while you gripped the rail of the bed with the other. How your toes pushed off the bottom of the bed, off the stirrups. Remember how you sat up to get an epidural. Remember how you got out of bed to pee. Remember how, when your son’s heart rate suddenly dropped, they picked you up and flipped you onto all fours so suddenly it felt like a horrible carnival ride.
None of these things happen for women who are shackled. Your birth experience is not their birth experience. For instance, Tina Tinen, who gave birth in New York in 2011 — 2 years after the state’s shackling ban was passed — was shackled in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. She was not allowed to call her mother. The only person present when she delivered her baby was the officer.
Similarly, Maria Carabello had wrist and ankle restraints, also after the ban. She says, “I was handcuffed to the metal part of the hospital bed. The line is really short, so you can’t move because it twists around and cuts your wrist. You can’t lift your body up and push, like a regular person, and you don’t have anyone there to support you, help you, lift you up. I had it on the whole time I was giving birth, even when my daughter was coming out. They kept me handcuffed while I held her, and only took them off when I went to the prison ward.”
Cosmopolitan describes what it was like for Melissa Hall to deliver her son in a Wisconsin Hospital (Wisconsin had no anti-shackling laws). A heavy cuff held her wrist to the bed, with another on her opposite ankle kept her leg “bound straight.” The chains were short and “dug into her flesh.” They made it difficult to give her an epidural: it took effect only on one side, leaving her in horrific pain. She had to “lie flat while she pushed,” and if she had to go to the bathroom, a guard wrapped a belly chain around her.
Not only is this completely lacking in any compassion, but there are medical risks to shackling, too. According to AWOL, before birth, shackling around the legs, hands, and belly makes it impossible for a woman to break her fall, causing possible harm to the fetus.
“During labor, when shackled to the bed, and having contractions, that just increases the pain and decreases the woman and doctor’s ability to alleviate that pain and engage in natural childbirth,” says Fettig. Postpartum, shackled women are at higher risks for blood clots because of their inability to move. And if a life-threatening complication happens, doctors have to wait for the guards to unfetter the prisoner before they can handle it — and in one case, the guard was literally out to lunch.
But shackling is a necessary practice, some corrections officers claim. AWOL cites a quote from Arkansas Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dina Tyler to The New York Timesin 2006: “Though these are pregnant women, 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.”
Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, told NPR that deputies are not trained to know if a woman is truly in labor or not, insinuating that, therefore, she needs to be shackled in case she’s faking it so she can escape. “If you’re laying in a hospital bed, and in the next hospital bed is a woman who’s in on a double murder charge, because she’s pregnant she shouldn’t be handcuffed to the side of the bed — I think if you’re the person laying in bed next to her you might disagree.”
This just proves what a patriarchal society we live in. Any woman who has given birth knows that there’s no way you’re going to attempt escape or murder during active labor. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not hurting anybody — except maybe by gripping your partner’s hand too hard. Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, the ACOG representative to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, told AWOL, “Labor is painful, so sometimes in response to pain, they need to be able to move their bodies around and shackles could interfere with that. [Shackling is] also a very degrading, demoralizing process and dehumanizing experience.”
Exactly. Which is why we need to end it, nationwide. No woman should deliver in shackles. And no American baby should be born in chains.