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The Mamafesto: The shackling of women birthing in prison needs to end

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Despite anti-shackling laws, women birthing in prisons are still restrained

Giving birth is an intense experience. Imagine going through it with your arms and legs shackled, perhaps even with a chain connecting the two going past your belly. Unfortunately, despite the many negative outcomes for both mother and child, shackling incarcerated women during labor and birth is still a common practice.

The Women in Prison Project recently released a major report, "Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons," that takes a look at the conditions faced by incarcerated women in the state of New York. What they found was shocking. Despite the fact that New York banned shackling during childbirth in 2009, the report found that prisoners are still routinely shackled while giving birth. The report also goes on to describe the horrific conditions many pregnant women experience while in prison. Many are given substandard care, given insufficient food and are routinely denied basic reproductive health items.

Unfortunately, this type of treatment occurs all across the country. Last year, I wrote about Massachusetts becoming only the 21st state in the country to ban shackling during birth. I shared the story of Kenzie, who had been incarcerated for a nonviolent offense while four months pregnant. She shared with me what it was like to labor while shackled:

"I couldn't fit into the back of the car because I was way too pregnant," Kenzie recalls. "I had to sit sideways as I continued to labor. I was on a hard, plastic seat in the back of a police cruiser. I've got cuffs on my wrists. I can't even buckle my seatbelt. So I'm sliding around. I'm trying to hang on [to the seat] while handcuffed, but I also need to hold on to my stomach. Once at the hospital, I couldn't even get onto the bed or undress because of the cuffs."

The response I've seen to this issue has been twofold. Some people shrug and ask what do these women expect. They're in prison, after all. However, the majority of people understand that just because you're in jail, it doesn't mean you are stripped of being treated properly, especially in a medical setting. Pregnant and birthing women — even ones who are incarcerated — still deserve quality care and to not be treated as subhuman. In fact, the medical community agrees. Both the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA) oppose restraining pregnant and birthing women, citing the fact that it is both dangerous and unnecessary.

It's appalling that only less than half the country outlaws shackling pregnant and birthing incarcerated women. It's even more frightening that even in the states with laws on the books, there are still many cases of women being mistreated and shackled while giving birth. This needs to change. Thankfully, there are organizations like the Women in Prison Project and the Coalition for Women Prisoners who are working to help improve conditions for women in prison, particularly those who are pregnant or giving birth.

More from The Mamafesto

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