Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Giving Birth in Shackles

On October 17, 2012, it was announced that the Virginia Board of Corrections approved tentative regulations to restrict the use of shackles on pregnant inmates.  Virginia’s regulations to restrict the shackling of pregnant inmates come just weeks after California passed Assembly Bill 2530 (AB 2530).[1]  The Virginia regulations will permit handcuffing pregnant inmates during transportation outside the jail but it will prohibit all restraints during labor and delivery.[2]  AB 2530 completely bans the use of shackles on pregnant inmates while they are in labor, delivery, recovery, and even after delivery.  California’s bill prohibits restraint by the wrists, ankles, or both, unless it is deemed necessary for the security of the inmate or the safety of the staff or public.  A federal court has concluded shackling pregnant inmates during labor and delivery is unconstitutional.  Yet, many states continue to use this unconstitutional practice. 

 Incarcerated women are forced to go through labor while their legs are shackled together, their hands are handcuffed to the hospital bed, and in some cases a secured chain is placed across their pregnant bellies connecting their hands and feet.  This practice of forcing pregnant women to give birth in shackles is not only cruel, inhumane, and degrading but it is a form of torture.  
Shackles during labor and delivery pose several problems.  It poses an extreme health risk to the mother and baby because the shackles limit a doctor’s ability to examine the mother.  In one case, a woman’s legs were shackled together and the correctional officer left; the shackles prevented her from opening her legs in order to give birth to her baby.  In another case, a women’s hip was dislocated as a result of being shackled during labor and delivery.  Shackles also prevent pregnant women from getting into optimal positions for child birth.  These restrictions make it impossible for pregnant women to move around and find positions that help alleviate the labor pains.    
Many people in this country are under the assumption that a person loses all of their rights once they are convicted of a crime and sent to jail.  This is evident by the lack of concern or attention given to shackles on pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, prison rape, and inhumane prison conditions.  People view these things as an extension of punishment.  But, when a pregnant woman is arrested for a petty crime such as check fraud or shoplifting she does not expect to be shackled during labor and delivery as a part of her punishment for this crime.  And judges certainly do not make this a condition of their sentence.  Although prisoners lose some of their constitutional rights, they are still protected by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Pregnant women in labor are in a vulnerable state; they are in the process of bringing life into the world.  Moreover, they are experiencing unbearable and uncontrollable pain.  If a pregnant inmate in labor was able to escape, the pain of labor would not allow her to get far before being caught.   Doctors, nurses, and ambulance EMT have all been opposed to shackling pregnant inmates during labor and delivery.  Some healthcare professionals have even voiced their concerns to correctional officers as they struggled to care for pregnant inmates in shackles.  Not only is this practice cruel, inhumane, and degrading, it is unnecessary and should be prohibited.
Tonya Davis
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


  1. It's absolutely ridiculous that this occurs throughout the country. I'm happy that the legislatures of both Florida and California have enough sense to realize the shackling of pregnant women should be outlawed. The fact that a person is in jail or has been convicted of a crime does not mean that they don't deserve common decency and respect. It's degrading as a human and as a mother to be shackled during childbirth.

    Hopefully, other legislatures will follow suit and outlaw this practice. I don't think that the Supreme Court would hear a case like this if it got to that level. So it's up to citizens to urge their congresspeople to introduce legislation regarding this.

  2. Being a mother and having gone through the agony and joy of child birth, I can't imagine what it would feel like to have restraints even if I were the worst convicted criminal society could stand. Anything that would put an innocent child at risk is wrong. Just the added stress placed on a woman during child birth alone by placing restraints on her is cruel and unusual punishment. Legislation needs to be demanded so that this practice is put to an end.