The controversial practice of shackling pregnant inmates — which major medical associations have condemned as “hazardous” and “barbaric” — is increasingly falling out of favor. States have pushed forward to ban it, and U.S. lawmakers have worked to prevent shackling in immigration detention centers.
But having a ban on the books doesn’t necessarily mean that prisons have actually ended the practice. A new report from the Women in Prison Project provides the latest evidence that states simply aren’t following through in this area.
According to that report, officials in New York prisons continue to illegally shackle pregnant inmates while they’re giving birth, despite the fact that the practice was outlawed in 2009. After surveying nearly 950 incarcerated women, researchers found that, among the 27 participants who gave birth after the shackling ban was passed, 23 of them were still restrained at some point during their labor or delivery. They described their experiences as “painful,” “horrible,” and “degrading.”
When women are shackled during or after childbirth, their movement is restricted by handcuffs and ankle restraints. They are typically chained directly to the bed where they are laboring, even though there’s no evidence of female prisoners attempting to escape during childbirth. Most women behind bars are nonviolent offenders and don’t pose a security risk to guards, particularly while giving birth.
The medical community firmly opposes shackling because it’s essential for women to have mobility during labor. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the practice exacerbates health hazards for pregnancies that are often already medically risky. “Minor forces may be sufficient to shear the placental attachments and increase the risk of a placental abruption after blunt abdominal trauma,” the group notes.
One female prisoner, who was shackled on her return trip to prison after having an emergency C-section in 2012, told the New York Times that the weight of her handcuffs on her stomach “felt like they were ripping open my C-section.”
Another formerly incarcerated women said she was shackled throughout her entire childbirth experience in 2010. On a press call to announce the findings of the report on Thursday, she told reporters that she was cuffed to the bed and unable to sit up, even as her daughter was moving through the birth canal. Maria Caraballo, who has since become an advocate for women in prison, said she remained shackled while she was being stitched up post-delivery.
Human rights groups have likened shackling pregnant women to torture. “Women are robbed of having a dignified and safe childbirth,” Tamar Kraft-Stolar, the author of the report and the director of the Women in Prison Project, told the Huffington Post.
In light of the evidence collected in the report, the Women in Prison Project concludes that New York needs to strengthen its law to ban shackling at every stage of pregnancy. The group is also calling on the state to provide more transparency about the current ban, partly by teaching incarcerated women about their rights. Kraft-Stolar believes there’s been hardly any oversight of the Department of Corrections to ensure the anti-shackling law is enforced.
The new report is just the latest example of states violating current laws against shackling pregnant inmates. Over the past several years, there’s been mounting evidence that the legislation in this area isn’t enough to protect women giving birth behind bars. Similar violations have recently been documented in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Illinois.
Danyell Williams, who used to work as a doula for inmates in Philadelphia, told the New York Times that state laws are just the beginning of a larger push toward safeguarding pregnant prisoners’ rights. “These laws were passed,” Williams said, “and everybody patted themselves on the back for doing what was right and human and then went on about their business. But there’s no policing entity that’s really going to hold these institutions responsible.”
The issue is particularly relevant as the population of female inmates has been on the rise, jumping by more than 21 percent between 2000 and 2009. In addition to shackling during childbirth, Kraft-Stolar’s report documents a wide range of reproductive justice violations perpetrated against women in prison — including a shortage of sanitary pads, a lack of adequate gynecological care, poor health services during pregnancy, and limited access to contraception.