New Bill Would Ensure No Woman Is Forced to Give Birth in Chains

When a woman becomes pregnant, the nature of her health care by necessity becomes tailored to her being pregnant. This is no less true when a pregnant woman is incarcerated. But corrections officials across the nation would often rather ignore the fact and needs of incarcerated pregnant women than address their health care needs or even their basic rights. For example, pregnant prisoners are often shackled during childbirth in this country as well as put in solitary confinement, practices that are as shocking as they are pervasive. 

When a woman goes to prison or jail, the criminal justice system is very likely to treat her not as a woman with needs particular to women, but as a smaller, more docile man. And they are treated that way even when they are in a hospital setting. This is flawed, and its consequences are great. 

Male prisoners are routinely shackled when taken to a hospital when they are considered a flight risk. The reason this rubric has extended to women is not because anyone has thought about the needs and realities of incarcerated women, but because male prisoners are the baseline for all criminal justice and corrections policies. This one-size-fits-all approach puts women at severe and unnecessary risk. 

Fortunately, there is now a bipartisan effort in Congress to begin eliminating dangerous and degrading practices for pregnant women. The Pregnant Women in Custody Act (PWCA) places strict limits on the use of shackles and solitary confinement on pregnant women in federal prison and in the custody of the United States Marshals Service. It also sets forth basic standards for pregnancy care. 

Importantly, the bill mandates that the federal government start collecting data on incarcerated women who are pregnant. Because, unbelievably, in a country that lionizes the power of big data for criminal justice, we don’t even know the number of pregnant women in our prisons and jails. 

Let’s think again about a pregnant woman as a flight risk similar to that of an incarcerated man at a hospital. Imagine a woman in the midst of childbirth leaping from her bed, running down the hall, and escaping from the hospital — while trying to deliver a baby. Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded incidence of such a thing ever occurring. 

Yet in America women are still forced to give birth in chains. Shackling women during childbirth is not only demeaning; it’s dangerous for the mother and the child. That’s why the American Medical Association, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, and the American Public Health Association have condemned the practice. Still, 24 states and the federal government have no laws that limit the use of shackles on pregnant women prisoners. 

Here’s another dirty secret — pregnant women are actually put in solitary confinement. That’s why the fact that the PWCA prevents this barbaric practice on women from the time they are known to be pregnant to the conclusion of postpartum recovery, with a very narrow security exception, is so critical. 

It is a popular misconception that solitary confinement is used to house only people in prison who have committed the most grievous crimes or who pose a threat to themselves, other prisoners, or prison staff. The truth is solitary is often used indiscriminately and, worse, specifically on the most vulnerable populations in prison, including pregnant women. 

The placement of pregnant women in solitary confinement is harmful and exacerbates the difficulties they already face in trying to get adequate pregnancy care while in prison. Such isolation is also well known to wreak extreme psychological harms on all people. 

Pregnancy often carries with it greater risks of stress and depression which can be enormously exacerbated by the psychological impacts of being placed in solitary confinement. Such stress on a pregnant woman may result in grave harms to a woman and her fetus, including miscarriage, heightened risk of infection, preterm labor, and low birth weight. 

I’ve been to solitary confinement units where women are held. I’ve seen psychotic women rocking back and forth in their cells, women talking to imaginary friends, and obviously pregnant women terrified they’ll give birth alone in a cell. I once asked a corrections official who claimed he was reforming the practice of solitary confinement across his system why he had no reform plans for the women’s unit. He looked surprised and told me he had just forgotten about the women. 

And, in just a few short words, the need for the Pregnant Women in Custody Act becomes crystal clear. 

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Anonymous

Most pregnant women wouldn't even think of running out of the hospital while in labor BUT most women don't commit crimes while pregnant, either. Getting yourself locked up while pregnant shows that you make bad decisions and/or have an uncontrollable addiction that overrides your common sense and maternal instincts.

Anonymous

"Getting yourself locked up while pregnant"??
What about unjustified arrest, incorrect identification of perp / other arrest of innocent persons, pretrial incarceration of persons later found not guilty -- and on the part of the person arrested, whether or not she has actually committed a crime, she may not yet know she is pregnant.
As for "most women don't commit crimes while pregnant", most people don't commit crimes, period - but that does not justify maltreatment of prisoners either before or after trial, and for that matter, guilty or not guilty.

Robert J Lindey

Some women get pregnant WHILE they're incarcerated. It could be due to conjugal visits with their husbands/boyfriends. It could also be due to the practice of putting MALE guards in FEMALE prisons. Sex with inmate is a "hidden perk" for many male guards. Some guards have given their inmates illegal drugs in return for "favors." Do you hope for most abortions to be criminalized? Or do you believe abortion is okay to prevent the birth of someone likely to become a criminal-----just like their mother. In some instances, "miscarriage " is just another name for an abortion caused by someone other than a medical doctor.

Most people would agree that when you're convicted of a crime , you deserve the worst of everything society has to offer. But what crime could the "unborn" child have committed?
Final note: I admire the courage you've displayed by labeling yourself as 'Anonymous."

b-Bird

And your takeaway is that therefore pregnant and/or laboring women deserve to be in solitary confinement and shackled? Apparently, you think making a bad decision means you forfeit any right to be treated humanely. Hope you don't have any children of your own - shudder!!!

Anonymous

There should be a national referendum with one question; should women be the only people deciding all aspects of reproduction rights. If the vote is yes, then legislation and law. Men could wash their hands of the issue. It is the one gender specific issue in our country and should be decided by only women.

OPJ

Not one word about protecting the health & safety of this unborn child. The child who commit ed no crime..

KevinM

The practice of solitary confnement as a whole needs to be abolished. Its sadistic and a form of psychological torture. That we'd shackle a pregnant woman in labor is completely ridiculous. Even if they have the desire to make a break for it their not really going to pull off some daring escape in the middle of delivering a child.

Seriously?

I can understand and agree with the author that the physiological effects of stress to the baby brought on by solitary confinement of the mother can be harmful to the unborn child.
But the mention and defense of said incarcerated mothers dignity?
Who cares?
If a women is rightfully convicted of a crime and is pregnant or becomes pregnant during her incarceration, I have little sympathy for her dignity.none at all actually.
I’m sure she gave no thought to the dignity of the person she wronged, or of the Society she may have ripped off, stolen from, neglected etcetc to all possible scenarios of why she might be in prison . Prison Is not supposed to be nice or comfortable or forgiving or Accommodating or easy. That’s the point. If women don’t want to give birth while shackeled to a bed then they shouldn’t commit crimes. Whether they know their pregnant or not.
I agree that the penal system has serious flaws that allow for innocent people to be convicted of crimes and thus leave said people to suffer for no good reason.
If you want to fix that I applaud you. Go for it. I’d even donate and volunteerto your cause.
It’s a good cause
However, we cannot treat those in our prison system with kid gloves and hugs and kisses just because sometimes good people go away.
It’s sad and it’s wrong but this is the system we have.
When the man who killed my father went to prison it was hardly a drop In the bucket of what he deserved.
I take solace in knowing that In prison His life will be hell.
What Justice would my family get if the penal system treated every person convicted of a crime as if they might be innocent?
They already get free health care free education free meals free housing free legal representation free cable free workout equipment (sometimes) free mental health care free medication etc etc
WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT FOR THEM??!!
life sucks
Minorities and the poor are disproportionately arrested and convicted of crimes that their white counterparts would either get away with or get much lighter sentences
Minorities and the poor are disproportionately inclined to commit crimes due to their neighborhoods (gangs) (fear of gangs)( feeling it necessary to carry an illegal weapon or discharging a illegal weapon), lack of education, lack of resources, lack of jobs, lack of social support, and so on all because of circumstances beyond their control.
All of this is true and In the end leads to minorities and innocent persons of minorities and others to be incarcerated.
This is a problem.
So do something
Have you written to you senator or representative ?
Have you staged a rally?
Have you written any where explaining the plight of these people in a way that might garner enough attention to make a change so that innocent people don’t end up incarcerated and go through the humiliaties we reserve for the guilty?
Or have you just bi*****on websites and forums to espouse your viewpoints all the while knowing that all you will receive in return is a slew of contrasting opinions that feed your ego and sense of ritiousness but have no impact whatsoever on changing or even giving your cause a legitimate platform or argument?
Thought so.

P.S. to Serious...

For the man who took my fathers life from him.
The absolute least I EXPECT from our system of “Justice” is the destruction of that mans of dignity.
If you can honestly tell me, or, if given the opportunity, look me in the eyes and say to me that I should forgo what LITTLE sense of Justice I get from knowing that man will be treated like S**T in prision, because their is a possibility that someone somewhere within the US penal system might be innocent. If you can do that, well you’ve got much bigger ovaries (men-balls) than I.
I could not deny a person or family what little miniscual tidbit of Justice our legal system allows us to legally have .
Our nations grand illusion on Justice is reprehensible.
We are all left grasping onto nothing more than the hope that true ultimate justice is served to all in the end.
Believers and none believers have to choice in this system but to accept this as their vengeance or end up incarcerated along side their enemy.
Believers or non believers, our judicial system does little to behest a sense of solace, meaning, purpose, understanding, closure, or justification for the pain inflicted by the guilty onto the victims and their families.
It may make me weak. It may make me a bad person. It may make me a lot of things.
But that mans jail sentence and he’ll he will live serving it, is merely a start to what he owes me.
It may be my perspective,
but to ask me to give away any of the so called Justice I’ve gotten for what he’s done just seems preposterous.
Selfish maybe
But I did not create our judicial system
I did not create the disparity between our social classes NOR do I participate in or support the ongoing systemic efforts of the rich rich to keep the status quo.
This is our country and that is the only Justice I can get.

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