American women shackled during childbirth

American women shackled during childbirth

A new report from the National Women's Law Centre and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights has taken a look at the way pregnant women are treated across all 50 US states. Only one State, Pennsylvania got a positive review. Most states do not require medical examinations as part of prenatal care, and do not offer pregnant women screening for HIV/AIDS.

The United States is addicted to incarceration, in its desperate urge to lock up as many of its own citizens as possible, it has managed to imprison a record number of women. The number of women in prison has risen at a faster rate for women than men since the introduction of mandatory sentences for drug offences. Since 1977, the number of incarcerated women has increased by over 700 percent. Most of the women imprisoned are non-violent first time offenders and two thirds of them have a child under eighteen. As with the incarceration of men in the United States there are strong indications of an extremely racist pattern behind the level of those imprisoned, five out of 1,000 white women will spend time in prison, as compared to 15 out of 1,000 Latina women and 36 out of 1,000 African American women.

The extent to which women are still shackled during childbirth was shockingly raised by the report. Most states have failed to implement strict limits on the use of shackles or other restraints on mothers during labor and delivery.

Shawanna Nelson was shackled to a hospital bed while giving birth to her son in 2003 when she was serving time for credit card fraud. On her release in 2004, she sued the state prison system, saying that the shackling — while she was experiencing severe contractions — caused lasting hip and back injuries.

In July, a federal jury found that Nelson's civil rights has been violated and awarded her a token $1 in damages. Nelson says her son, Jordan, is doing well and she is proud of pursuing the lawsuit despite the nominal award.

"The case was never about money," she said. "It helped bring attention to the situation."

Some of the prison authorities have attempted to defend their policies, Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said “only front handcuffs” are used on pregnant women.

The authors of the report hope that through highlighting the issue the policies that have led to this inhumane treatment of American mothers will be changed. Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Rebecca Project and co-author of the new report, said further reforms could have far-reaching impact. Improved policies  "will offer incarcerated mothers and their families a meaningful chance to break the cycle of generational addiction, incarceration and poverty and achieve family stability," Saar said.