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Shackling Women During Childbirth

Oct 3rd, 2010 | Category: Women and Jails
from Justice Fellowship, 2011

         The practice of shackling—the placement of restraints or chains around ankles, waist and hands—usually happens when pregnant women are transported from one area to another, transferred to a new prison or taken to a hospital for medical care. A more egregious form of shackling is that during labor and childbirth, when chains are placed around the waist and legs and arms are strapped to the bed. Women have also been shackled while breast or bottle feeding or visiting in a neonatal nursery.

Only ten states—California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia—have legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women. Women detained in 40 states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons lack such legislative protection. But even in those states with policies prohibiting the practice, shackling may still occur at the discretion of corrections officials.

According to the Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics, approximately 40,000 female sentenced to prison each year are pregnant upon arrival. Many of them are serving sentences for minor crimes and do not pose a flight risk.

…presents risks not only for the inmate giving birth, but also for the infant.

Although the American Correctional Association (ACA), which establishes standards and accredits prisons, has a clear policy regarding the shackling of pregnant inmates, prisons have mostly acted on their own discretion, regardless of the risk involved.

The ACA policy (ACI 4-4353-1) clearly states that every prison system should have in place “written policy, procedure and practice, in general, prohibit(ing) the use of restraints on female offenders during active labor and the delivery of a child. Any deviation from the prohibition requires approval by, and guidance on, methodology from the Medical Authority and is based on documented serious security risks. The Medical Authority provides guidance on the use of restraints on pregnant offenders prior to active labor and delivery. Comment: Restraints on pregnant offenders during active labor and the delivery of a child should only be used in extreme instances and should not be applied for more time than is absolutely necessary. Restraints used on pregnant offenders prior to active labor and delivery should not put the pregnant offender nor the fetus at risk.”

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a formerly incarcerated female inmate could sue the corrections officer who had shackled her legs to each side of the hospital bed while she was in labor.

Justice Fellowship calls for states to enact laws prohibiting restraints on women inmates during childbirth.

Justice Fellowship is working with a broad group of organizations dedicated to prohibiting—except in extraordinary circumstances—this medically risky practice. We urge each state to pass a clear statute explicitly banning the practice except in limited cases. In addition, all correctional officers should be trained in their responsibilities under the new statute. We encourage protection of women in prison so that this vulnerable population will receive needed healing and restoration.

Stories of Women Giving Birth in Shackles
“Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives, Women’s Prison Association, Institute on Women and Criminal Justice (2009)
Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Oct. 2009)
American Correctional Association
State by state policies on shackling
“Stop Shackling Inmate Mothers,” Pat Nolan, Huffington Post (Oct. 2009)
Supporting organizations
Shawanna Nelson, shackling victim (video)
News on Shackling Pregnant Inmates

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