Back to News & Commentary

Bureau of Prisons Revises Policy on Shackling of Pregnant Inmates

Share This Page
October 20, 2008

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

The ACLU welcomes the Bureau of Prisons’ recent policy change barring the shackling of pregnant inmates in federal prisons in all but the most extreme circumstances.

This new policy represents a sea change in the United States, where the shackling of pregnant women during transport, labor, and even delivery has long been routine in jails and prisons. Currently, only California, Illinois, and Vermont have enacted state laws restricting the practice of shackling pregnant women. By contrast, international human rights bodies have repeatedly expressed concern about policies that permit shackling of pregnant women.

Such reform is long overdue: As the stories from Amnesty International’s 1999 report, “Not Part of My Sentence”: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody” make clear, shackling is not only dangerous and inhumane, but also poses serious and unnecessary risks to the wellbeing of the mother as well as her child. Warnice Robinson, who was imprisoned for shoplifting, explains,

“Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn’t remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery, and they couldn’t put my feet in the stirrups. My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn’t get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn’t open my legs.”

Maria Jones, who was incarcerated for violating drug laws, tells the story of having labor induced two weeks prior to her due date, but being “kept in shackles, leaving 18 inches between her ankles, and told to pace the hallway for several hours. ‘It was so humiliating. My ankles were raw,’ she said. ‘I had shackles on up until the baby was coming out and then they took them off for me to push…It was unbelievable. Like I was going to go anywhere.'”

Of course, shackling is just one of the many dangerous and inhumane practices that pregnant women face in prison. Far too many women lack access to adequate prenatal care or even adequate drinking water, and in nearly all facilities throughout the country newborns are almost instantly separated from their mothers — a practice that experts stress denies children crucial bonding time with their mothers.

The new policy represents a huge victory for the thousands of women incarcerated in federal prisons throughout the country — a victory hard won by groups like The Rebecca Project for Human Rights and other organizations that have advocated for this change.

But this is only the beginning. In 47 states there is no legislation to restrict the practice of shackling pregnant women; state and local prisons are not subject to the new federal policy. And the U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which increasingly detains immigrant women who have never committed a crime, has refused to specifically end the use of restraints on pregnant women.

In the U.S., where one in 100 people is behind bars and where women represent the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population (their numbers have increased at nearly double the rate of men since 1985), shackling continues to affect thousands of women each year.

The ACLU has responded to The Rebecca Project’s call for the formation of an Anti-Shackling Coalition to work together to end the practice of shackling incarcerated mothers during transport, labor, delivery and post-delivery in state prisons and jails and all immigration facilities. Stay tuned and prepare to call your representatives.

For key findings from Amnesty International’s 2005 follow-up report regarding the use of restraints on pregnant women in custody, click here; the full report appears here.

Amy Fettig, ACLU National Prison Project, Diana Kasdan, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, Lenora Lapidus, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Vania Leveille, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Learn More About the Issues on This Page