States Moving Forward to Outlaw Inhuman Practice of Shackling Pregnant Women

By Riley Karbon, Field Intern

Shackling of pregnant women is an alarming trend in United States’ prisons. Only six states in the U.S. have laws expressly condemning the practice. The Pennsylvania legislature recently introduced an anti-shackling bill that received unanimous approval in the Judiciary Committee, and Washington state has a proposed bill hopefully being introduced soon. As more women are being incarcerated as a result of increasingly harsh drug laws, the number of pregnant women in prison has also increased, making shackling an even more pressing issue.

Because many states do not have shackling laws on the books, the use of restraints on pregnant woman is common and the methods can vary greatly. Shackling can mean using a combination of handcuffs, leg shackles and belly chains during transportation, labor, delivery, surgery, and recovery. These humiliating, outdated practices severely impede a woman’s ability to alleviate pain and to position herself correctly to give birth. Limited movement can cause a lack of oxygen and fetal distress, and restraints can pose a risk in case of an emergency, when time is a critical factor.

What’s the justification for unsafe and unnecessary shackling? Many prison facilities cite an alleged flight risk, but no such escape attempts have been reported. As Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach said: “The only justification for it is security, and the idea that a woman who is nine months pregnant, during labor, is able to overpower two armed guards and scale a wall and sprint to freedom is preposterous.” Restraining women’s bodies during labor and birth, when movement is natural and essential, is an inhumane form of control, and it should not fall under the same blanket policy of restraining incarcerated persons during hospital visits.

Fortunately, shackling has been recognized as a form of cruel and unusual punishment by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In October 2009, the court ruled six to five in Nelson v. Norris that it is a constitutional violation to shackle a pregnant inmate’s legs to her hospital bed during labor, and any guard responsible for doing so is NOT entitled to qualified immunity.

In 2009, NOW passed an anti-shackling resolution stating that: “All pregnant women in detention or correctional facilities are dehumanized by this practice, women of color are particularly impacted, as black women are incarcerated at a rate 2.66 times that of white women. . . . NOW support[s] state legislation to force detention centers, correctional facilities, and hospitals to discontinue shackling pregnant women who are detained or incarcerated during labor and during pre- and post-childbirth transport from detention to medical facilities.”

Internationally, the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Rule 33, states that shackles should not be used on inmates unless they are a danger to themselves, others or property or have a history of absconding.

Stand with NOW in supporting the rights of incarcerated women. Educate yourself about the shackling laws in your state, call your representatives and ask them to sponsor or support a bill that outlaws this unsafe, unnecessary and discriminatory practice.

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