Pregnant Women Shackled in US Prisons

In the US, some states still shackle incarcerated pregnant women before, during and after giving birth.

It is unbelievable that in the so-called civilised world practices such as chackling pregnant women during labour still exist.  And yet, the United States of America have the biggest rate of incarceration of women under extremely bad conditions.  Why this happens and what changes the future is about to bring remain unknown. Part of the answer surely lies in the cruel, punitive and rigid policies employed by the US criminal justice system. What position do women, as women, with their specific needs have? Are their needs taken into account by the criminal justice system or are they completely overlooked and disregarded?

The practice of shackling definitely indicates the cruelty and relentlessness still prevailing in the US prison system. According to a recent article published in the Guardian, which shocked the media circles, belly chains, hand cuffs and leg irons are still used in several states across the US to prevent imprisoned pregnant women from escaping! Some of them are also shackled during medical appointments, screenings and court appearances! The number of the women being shackled is not widely known since the prison officials are not obliged to keep records of those women who are subjected to this torture. But what does the US  law officially predict for the practice of shackling?

According to  the Rebecca Project for Human Rights report,  twenty-two states either have no policy at all addressing when restraints can be used on pregnant women or have a policy which allows for the use of dangerous leg irons or waist chains. Twenty-four states do not require training for individuals handling and transporting incarcerated persons needing medical care or those dealing with pregnant women specifically, or have no policy on training, and thirty-one states do not have a policy that holds institutions accountable for shackling pregnant women without adequate justification. 

The very informative paper on ‘reproductive justice in the prison system’ published by Law Students for Reproductive Justice stated that  since 2000 eleven states- Illinois, California, Vermont, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Washington, West Virginia, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania- have passed legislation to restrict the violence exercised on pregnant women. Eight of those laws were put in practice during the last two years.  However, no matter the different legislation there are still prisons that put the life and integrity of women in jeopardy, by allowing for shackling practices to exist without examining women’s past, health and individual record – including for example their state of conscience or previous escape attempts. 

The most horrendous realisation is that those women who are confined behind bars and also happen to be pregnant are usually incarcerated for non-violent offences, mostly for drug related offences, such as use and possession for personal use! Shackling might have been a practice that has been established in prisons for the purposes of arresting and putting in discipline violent offenders, such as criminals who were a potential threat for society, but in the case of non-violent women who are usually responsible for petty crimes due to their extreme poverty and for possessing drugs due to their addiction-which must be looked at as a health problem and not as a crime!- putting chains on them is degrading,  extremely dangerous for their health and dehumanizing. And most of all, it shows the lack of civilization, respectfulness, compassion and logic of the law that permits for such a practice! The US is supposed to belong to a modern, civilized, progressive era where at least, logic is considered as a number one value in shaping the dominant system. Apart from inhumane, shackling pregnant vulnerable women is not logical, and it designates the irrationality, cruelty and absurdity of a country that is supposed to be the world leading power. What a shame!

There are some reasons to believe that those practices will be eliminated in the near future. Fortunately in this world justice always tries to combat injustice, even if sometimes  unsuccessfully. There are numerous advocacy organisations that fight for the rights of those women and try to change the existing degrading policies though campaign work, litigation, activism and many other available means.

Advocacy groups are currently working towards the establishment of legislation passed in the 34 states that still allow shackling practices and the legal fortification of the unlawfulness of shackling pregnant women before, during and after pregnancy.  The United Nations Committee Against Torture has repeatedly condemned this abhorrent practice ; so did the American Medical Association which adopted a resolution to ban the shackling of women during pregnancy in June 2010, describing the practice as ‘barbaric’ and ‘medically hazardous’ and  so did the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Let us hope that all those efforts will prove effective and counter the lack of rationality of the US justice system. And fingers crossed the US criminal justice will be able one day- preferably as soon as possible- to distinguish the existence of different people, with different personalities, different needs and  different histories. It is more urgent than ever that gender is recognized and put into the prison and criminal justice systems agenda. After all, equality is not about homogeneity but it is all about respect of each person’s humanity and individuality.

You can read the Rebecca Project for Human Rights Report here