Invisible Women, Invisible Shackles

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by Courtroom Mama


Here’s another for the “things I should care more about” files: shackling of pregnant inmates during labor.

State by state, prison reform activists have been chipping away at the practice, and now, according to this NPR report that came out last Friday, 10 states have ended the practice in most circumstances. This is a fantastic victory, it’s about damned time this issue was brought to light by the major media outlets, and I’m sending a virtual fist pump to the people who have worked to make this happen.

Nevertheless, there are two aspects of this that I find depressing:

  1. Do we really have to prove on a state-by-state basis that this clearly cruel and unusual practice runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment—not to mention any standards of human decency? For the nerds out there, there is actually an Eighth Circuit decision on the matter, ruling in favor of the pregnant woman, but I’d like to see the doors slammed shut a little more quickly and completely on this practice.  
  2. Responses to the issue show just how absolutely clueless people are. Both good clueless (“I had no idea this terrible thing is happening!”) and bad clueless (“Who cares, men get shackled, durp durp.”).

Look, I get it. Do the crime, do the time. Tough on crime. Win one for the Gipper… ad nauseam. But anyone who thinks that giving birth completely confined to a bed by shackles is a suitable punishment for the drug or property offenses for which the majority of women inmates are in prison (pdf) clearly has never given birth, and/or is a total sadist. While this is an issue that doulas instinctively understand, some people just don’t understand the importance of movement in making labor bearable, while others are just left behind on some Biblical “labor pain = punishment” fetish.  Hello! The sentence is for incarceration, not physical punishment!

This has implications for those of us on the outside, too. If it has taken this long for people to see the cruelties visited on the invisible women we hide in our prisons at an ever increasing pace, how long will it take them to see the commonplace evil of the invisible shackles so common in labor? I wonder how many people who heard the NPR segment thought immediately to their own experiences of being restrained during a cesarean (or even during a vaginal birth in the Bad Old Days), or being told that they must be hooked to internal monitors that prevent them from moving. If legislatures are increasingly willing to recognize that preventing a woman from moving during labor is tantamount to torture, when are we going to start demanding that the monitors and restraints only be used when absolutely indicated, and never against the will of the pregnant woman? I think the time is now.

In my perfect world, legislators in these 10 states would get a follow-up visit from birth activists proposing legislation to ensure that no woman is deprived of her human rights by being unnecessarily or unwillingly restrained during labor, and that medical procedures that have the effect of restraint be done only with proper informed consent, including information about how positioning affects pain and progress in labor.

Lastly, just writing this out raises a serious question in my mind: what does it say about gender equality in the U.S. if we need to follow every guarantee of the Bill of Rights with legislation or litigation that says “and this applies to women too!”

Photo credit: Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA Press