Can You Imagine Being Shackled During Labor?

shackled pregnant womanRecently a relative of mine was in the ICU for an extended period of time. During one visit, the unit was on lockdown: one cop outside the entrance, one inside the doors, one outside a patient room, and two inside. And as I glanced over, I noticed an unconscious man shackled to the bed.

It’s not uncommon for prisons to bring their patients to local hospitals, especially if the prison doesn’t have a large medical unit or if the case is critical. Seeing that man shackled to the bed, even though he clearly wasn’t going anywhere, got me thinking: What happens to female inmates who give birth? Are they on lockdown and shackled, the way this man was?



By law, of course, pregnant inmates must receive the same basic level of prenatal care that a woman on the outside would -- regular doctor’s appointments, ultrasounds, prenatal vitamins, treatment for any special conditions. Some prisons have even adjusted the menu for pregnant women, ensuring that they get the extra calories needed.

But pregnant prisoners don’t get a lot of the things we take for granted on the outside -- breast pads, for instance, to absorb leaking milk. There are no body pillows, heating pads, blankets -- at most, the woman might get an extra pillow (though she may have to pay for it).

All of that is if the woman is in a caring prison environment -- and how often do you think that happens?

And when labor starts, if the woman is lucky enough to be immediately attended to, she will be taken to the prison hospital or the local hospital, in shackles -- hands and feet, often with a chain attaching the two. Can you imagine having to walk to the prison bus or ambulance with shackles on your feet when in labor?

The women remain shackled for the entire experience: transport, in the wheelchair or gurney, and in the labor and delivery unit. Thankfully, laws have been passed recently (thank you, ACLU!) stating that the woman can’t give birth while shackled -- but it’s completely up to the prison staff when to remove the cuffs. Putting all the emotional implications of this aside, this still seems tremendously unsafe. Officials are the ones who decide when the shackles can come off for birth -- which can waste precious time, as doctors and nurses stand by waiting to do their jobs (and forget about emergencies).

And the law says nothing about post-labor. Officials can re-cuff the mom the second the baby comes out. Stories abound of women who have been restrained as soon as the umbilical cord is cut, with just one arm free to greet her child.

I get that these women are prisoners. I also understand that most of them are in jail for drug offenses rather than violent crimes. And really, if you were going to go on a murderous rampage, do you think you could find the strength to do it in the middle of labor?

I can see no reason to shackle these women, except to continue the psychological warfare that is prison life. It’s humiliating and cruel, completely unnecessary, and unsafe to boot.

What do you think? Is being shackled during your pregnancy cruel and unusual punishment, or just the consequences of the crime?


Image via ACLU of Northern California

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