Author and Prison Activist Jean Trounstine Discusses IHR Clinic Report on Shackling Pregnant Prisoners

Shackling Incarcerated Women While Giving Birth

Jean Trounstine 
October 3, 2013

It is almost inconceivable. Unless you're a prison activist. Unless you have worked behind bars. Unless you are a woman who watched her cell mate come back bereft to the unit after giving birth in leg irons and chains around her wrists. Or unless you are someone who actually went through this yourself. It's a human rights issue and named so by organizations around the world. But 32 states in the U.S. continue this barbaric practice, including my home state of Massachusetts.

Recently a major human rights report submitted in August by the ACLU, the International Human Rights Clinic at the Chicago Law School, and Chicago Legal Advocacy with Incarcerated Mothers recommended a federal law banning the practice, and that all states enact law to demand anti-shackling. Those states that have such laws should review them and update if necessary, and the U.S. should "conduct an empirical study to determine the scope of shackling in U.S. prisons and to understand why the practice of shackling pregnant women persists."

Good idea! It's crazy to imagine a woman might run while she is giving birth. And "flight risk" is one of the main things that causes prisons to enact these barbaric practices, said ACLU lawyer and prison rights advocate Amy Fettig who spoke at Framingham State University recently.

All experts on this subject say that shackling is harmful to the life of the child. According to Nation Inside, "shackling a woman by her wrists and ankles hampers her ability to move to alleviate the pain of her contractions. This increases stress on the woman’s body and may decrease the flow of oxygen to her fetus." They cite medical professionals such as the American Medical Association, the American College of Nurse-Midwives and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who have weighed in on this.

The recent human rights report above, entitled The Shackling of Incarcerated Women, also states that shackling violates the U.S. Constitution and international law because it is cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, it disproportionately impacts women of color. It spells out that restraints should never be used.

Vikki Law and Tina Brown, two experts in this area, gave an interview on Black Talk Radio Network in 2012. They said, "Fve to six percent of women entering jails and prisons each year are pregnant. Many will spend the duration of their pregnancies behind bars, which means that even if they do not give birth while incarcerated, they must rely on the prison’s prenatal care, which is often inadequate and sometimes can jeopardize their pregnancies."

I saw this at Framingham Women's Prison when I taught there, heard the horror stories as women turned up in my classes to describe such treatment. It's difficult not to ask if such a tactic is really designed to protect the prison from a prisoner running away or if it is designed for sheer humiliation. The keeper once again shows power over the kept. Or to paraphrase William Butler Yeats in his famous poem, "The Second Coming," the falconer does not heed the falcon.

Many advocates across the country are working to change this practice, turn policy into actual law in some states and make laws that are meaningful in others. Law and Brown added in their comments that  "It’s important to remember that we cannot wait for prison administrators and legislators to see the light; we have to constantly remind them that shackling pregnant prisoners is not only a medical issue, but also a human rights abuse that will not be tolerated."

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