Shackling Pregnant Inmates — A Human Rights Violation In The United States

upset pregnant woman

Written by: Jaimie-lee

It’s one of those things that makes you ask: Is this still happening in what’s supposed to be the most celebrated advanced country in the civilized world?

In 2023, pregnant women in the United States continue to endure shackling not only while entering prison, but also before, during, and immediately after delivery of their babies. Pregnant women account for about 4% of incarcerated women.

According to government authorities, shackles “are physical restraints that can include handcuffs, straitjackets, leg irons, belly chains, and others.”

In one study on the prevalence of shackling, researchers stated:

“The jail [we studied] additionally reported that restraints to another person and postpartum restraint use were not prohibited. These policies directly contradicted the existing state legislation.”

Let’s dive into this mind-boggling issue.

What Has Been Done So Far? 

Back in 2018, Congress proposed an act that should have ended the unnecessary and barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women. The type of prohibited restraints varies by state.

Since female prisoners are significantly less likely to be violent than their male counterparts — one in 56 offenders as opposed to one in 9 for men — this prohibition is reasonable and does not increase the risk to officers’ safety.

Yet, the 2018 H.R.5682 Act made barely a dent in the instances of shackling, with little accountability for enforcement of the Act in places where it is banned. 

A loophole, whereby officers can shackle prisoners deemed a flight risk, a threat to themselves or others, or having a history of violence, is one argument for going against the Act. But, as reported, violence is simply not a choice of action for the majority of female prisoners.

And while some women have won court settlements for being shackled while pregnant, and for avoidable medical injury, such cases are few and far between due, again, to a lack of accountability.

A Greater Sense Of Humanity From Victims? 

A shackled woman reflects nothing but the inhumane removal by correctional personnel of one’s bodily autonomy, dignity, and respect. Whether it emerges from egotistical attitudes or indifference due to the incarcerated status of women, no explanation detracts from the savage nature of the practice.

Would it be wrong to say the victims in this situation — some of whom are sent to jail for white-collar crimes, smoking marijuana before they even knew they were pregnant, or nonviolent drug offences — have more of a heart than some of those working in the justice system?

After all, we’re talking about bringing the most innocent human lives into existence, and offering basic medical safety and necessities for those gifted with the ability to continue humanity’s existence. 

The Health Risks Of Shackling Pregnant Women

Several major bodies, including the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Medical Association, condemn the practice and argue against the use of shackling on pregnant inmates.

When shackled, medical personnel cannot carry out their ethical, often time-sensitive, duties towards the baby and its mother.

For instance, sometimes, a mother may need to change her position to avoid fetal distress or accommodate a decelerated fetal heart rate.

Shackling poses the following safety risks to a fetus:

  • The lack of balance from shackles could result in dangerous falls or placental abruption that hurt the mother and the fetus.
  • Immobility during labor constricts the mother while doctors give critical instructions, potentially leading to an unsafe delivery.
  • A delay in a C-section birth could trigger permanent brain damage in the child and injury to the mother.

Some new mothers are re-shackled mere minutes after the delivery of their child. The pain of handcuffs on the stomach after a C-section is just one form of suffering that they may have to endure.

Such a hurry to shackle and return the inmate to prison may also lead to major health concerns or even death as many life-threatening, post-delivery emergencies regularly occur during pregnancy.

Additionally, pregnancy complications such as hypertension, pre-eclampsia, appendicitis, kidney infection, vaginal bleeding, and preterm labor may occur at any point. Shackling does nothing but further aggravate complications.

It’s no wonder shackling is described, quite accurately, as a violation of the 8th Amendment: The right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. It is also condemned as torture by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

Walking, a common piece of advice given to pregnant women to help with labor pains and to induce labor, can thwart the instance of deep vein thrombosis post-delivery. Being shackled, to a bed or otherwise, prevents women from walking for both their baby’s health and their own. 

In an extreme case, shackling led to hip dislocation and permanent deformities, an umbilical hernia, and stomach muscle tears for one jailed pregnant mother.
In a more recent case in October 2023, Ashley Caswell filed a suit against an Alabama jail after delivering her baby in a jail shower. The only help she was given by prison staff was Tylenol for the pain throughout 12 hours of labor.

The Mental Trauma Inflicted Through Shackling Women 

The dehumanizing act of shackling poses serious mental health consequences, whether it’s done pre-, during, or post-delivery of the child.

Pregnancy carries its own potential mental health issues; postpartum depression is more commonly known. Shackled pregnancy may further cause anguish, distress, and depression, just to name a few.

Speaking to the Guardian, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, MD, pointed out that “Women who get locked up, tend on average to have suffered many more childhood traumas.” 

Therefore, shackling not only causes post-traumatic stress disorder, but also increases existing post-traumatic symptoms through re-traumatization. 

Michelle Aldana, who labored for almost 30 hours with her legs shackled in a Utah state prison, said she “felt like a farm animal” during her delivery. 

Making A Change After Loss

The stories of incarcerated women can be unbearable to hear. New mothers are subjected to stares, while naked, by male officers; while other women are relentlessly cursed, in addition to being denied and delayed in receiving proper medical care.

Many stories remain untold because miscarriages occur instead of delivery.

Such was nearly the case of Pamela Winn, Founding Director of RestoreHer, an organization dedicated to leadership training, trauma care, and passing legislation to ban solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant people.

Winn shared her horrific story during a 2019 Civil Rights Briefing on Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars. She is one of many who continue the fight against this human rights violation.

As Winn noted, there is no standardization for pregnant people’s medical care in several institutions. Like her, many lose their dignity as a result of the heartless behavior of officers.

Global Foundation For Girls aims to bring light to these immoral and depraved situations. We also facilitate training and resource provision for prenatal care, childbirth, and postnatal care. See our work here to learn more and contribute.

Global Foundation for Girls is joining UN Women, and the global network, in the global movement – 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence

The campaign calls on citizens to show how much they care about ending violence against women and girls by sharing the actions they are taking, and on governments worldwide to share how they are investing in gender-based violence prevention.

Together, we can work to create a world free from violence towards women. Follow us to find tools and information you can use to #Listen#Learn and #TakeAction today.