States Aim to Make the Grade When It Comes to Shackling Pregnant Prisoners

A few days ago, Mie Lewis blogged on the importance, and challenges, of protecting women in the criminal justice system. A recent report by the Rebecca Project and the National Women's Law Center illustrates these points well. The report graded each state based on its treatment of pregnant inmates, and only seven states received a composite grade higher than a "B." A central example of how prisons treat women poorly is the practice of shackling pregnant inmates. Causing undue health risks to women and their pregnancies, shackling takes many forms, including handcuffs, leg restraints, or even an iron band across a woman's abdomen. The practice, which contradicts common sense, seems even more absurd when you look at statistics showing most women prisoners are nonviolent offenders who pose low security risks.

For starters, consider the numbers. In the United States, one person in every one hundred is incarcerated. This translates into thousands of pregnant women who are incarcerated every year in correctional facilities where shackling is standard protocol. But even if only one pregnant woman were shackled, there is no justification for subjecting her to a demeaning, demoralizing, unsafe, and unnecessary practice that can lead to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Leg shackles can result in slips and falls, which pose the risk of miscarriage. Waist shackles, which often remain locked during labor, pose a serious obstacle to safely managing emergency medical complications. And during labor and delivery, arm and leg shackles severely impede a woman's ability to adjust her position in order to facilitate the process. In short: shackling is harmful to women and their babies, and the practice must end.

But there is reason to be hopeful: 10 states have already passed laws restricting or banning the practice of shackling pregnant inmates, and 14 states have introduced bills that would ban its use. And with support from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Correctional Association, Federal Bureau of Prisons, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, international human rights groups, community organizations, and advocacy groups like the ACLU, an anti-shackling movement has been growing throughout the country.

Of these 14 bills pending, I am particularly proud of New Jersey's Bill No. 3492. As a "Joisey" native, I was embarrassed that mine was the only "Tri-State" jurisdiction without a law to protect the health of pregnant women in prisons and jails (New York and Pennsylvania restricted shackling in 2010 and 2009 respectively), so I wrote to my assemblywoman, Bonnie Watson Coleman. Just before my birthday in November, Assemblywoman Coleman introduced a bill that would ban shackling of pregnant inmates "during any stage of labor, any pregnancy related medical distress, transport to a medical facility, or delivery, or postpartum." (Go Congresswoman Coleman!) It was the best birthday present! Like sponsors in all other states, she'll need to work hard to get the bill passed. Fortunately, we know anti-shackling legislation has been able to pull support from across the ideological spectrum.

Given the momentum, we hope, and expect, to see the list of states banning shackling growing, and the number of babies born to mothers in shackles shrinking. It's time to turn what should be common sense into common practice.

Find out more about how pregnant women in prisons fare in your state and if it's not up to standard, contact your local ACLU affiliate to find out what you can do to help pregnant women in jails.

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