In 2020, over 225,000 women were incarcerated in the United States; of those women, only approximately 15% were in institutions where they would not be legally subjected to shackling during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery. Despite its archaic nature, the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women remains a legal practice in countless prisons and jails across the U.S. In fact, more than a dozen states have no existing laws that prevent the physical restraint of incarcerated women during labor. Though it comes with few legal repercussions, the shackling of incarcerated women is highly dangerous and immoral. Undoubtedly, this demeaning and dehumanizing practice strips pregnant women of their dignity, safety and comfort in their most vulnerable, defenseless moments.
Rationale for Shackling
Shackling is often cited as a mechanism to prevent female prisoners from attempting to flee a medical facility, and therefore, escaping incarceration. In other instances, shackling is justified as a means of protecting medical staff and correctional officers. At first glance, these explanations may appear to be logically sound and evidence-based. However, in reality, the opposite is true. There is a complete lack of data suggesting that any woman has ever escaped from custody before or during childbirth. Time and time again, evidence has indicated that shackling is a wholly unnecessary precaution. Ultimately, the only purpose that shackling serves during childbirth is to degrade, humiliate and traumatize vulnerable women.
Dangers of Shackling
Shackling pregnant women is not only an inhumane practice, but it is a highly dangerous one as well. Restraining a woman during pregnancy and childbirth severely threatens her mental and physical safety. Additionally, shackling presents an array of high-risk medical complications. Incarcerated pregnant women are often shackled while being transported to medical care facilities, and even after being admitted to a hospital, they are frequently shackled during childbirth, as well as during postpartum recovery. While the exact numbers are unknown, some incarcerated women are shackled at the wrists and ankles while giving birth. In extreme cases, women in labor are shackled across their stomachs.
Shackles can significantly increase the pain, stress and discomfort a woman experiences while giving birth. After being shackled during childbirth, some incarcerated mothers have reported adverse mental health consequences, such as anguish, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Women who give birth in prison are already at a higher risk of postpartum depression, and shackling during childbirth likely only exacerbates this risk.
Shackles can also prevent medical personnel from properly caring for patients. In the case of an emergency, correctional officers have to release a patient from her shackles before she can be adequately assessed and treated by doctors. In and of itself, this situation serves as proof that shackles create a severe liability, potentially delaying or preventing patients from receiving emergency medical care. Some physicians have reported not being able to give incarcerated patients an epidural due to the interference of shackles.
Shackling a pregnant woman also presents a high-risk situation for the fetus she is carrying. In fact, evidence indicates that shackling during the late stages of pregnancy and labor increases the likelihood of miscarriage. Furthermore, as noted above, shackles can prevent medical personnel from properly caring for patients, which can in turn pose medical risks to the fetus. Medical experts also say that impaired mobility prior to giving birth can result in delayed labor, potentially jeopardizing a healthy delivery.
A Need for Change
Unfortunately, imprisoned women are marginalized, and their needs are often overlooked in medical contexts. The inhumanity of the treatment they receive while pregnant is truly startling. In particular, shackling is a clearly unethical and dangerous practice that jeopardizes the physical safety and mental well-being of pregnant women in prison, as well as the health of their babies. To ensure the fair treatment of incarcerated mothers, shackling and physical restraint during labor must be universally recognized as inhumane and should be discontinued. This would represent an improvement in the humanity of care provided to incarcerated pregnant women, help to protect the fetuses as they enter the world and minimize the risk of major psychological and physical harm for these women and their children.