Prison Births: Chained to an Inhumane Idea

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At the heart of  all the fun and festivity that  draws families and communities  together this time of year is the somber  celebration of a sacred birth.  Beyond its obvious religious significance, the story of Christmas is, in so many ways, a celebration of the inherent sacredness of birth.


Anyone – Christian and non-Christian alike — who hears the story of a pregnant Mary being turned away from the inn, who imagines Joseph frantically cleaning a stable to provide a suitable place for an infant, is moved by the human story behind Christmas, that every mother and every child should experience the moment of birth with  some modicum of dignity. In biblical times and now.

Yet, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, hundreds of children are born each year to mothers in shackles.  In those states, jails and prisons shackle mothers in labor and when they deliver their babies, whether at the prison or in a hospital. Mothers are shackled during labor and delivery whether they have a history of violence (which only a small minority have) or not, whether the mother is a flight risk or never tried to escape, and without regard to their states of consciousness.

The departments of correction in the states that shackle birthing mothers defend the practice as a matter of security. Mothers in labor and delivery, they argue, pose a security threat when transported to a hospital and during the hospital stay. And, since it is standard procedure to shackle prisoners with other medical emergencies, mothers in labor and delivery are no exception. 

Anyone who has given birth, indeed any person who has witnessed the birthing process, knows that the prospect of a woman in childbirth trying to run away or tackle a corrections officer is almost comical. Shackling these mothers is a draconian and inhumane practice that cannot be justified in terms of security.  

Shackling is an especially cruel practice in light of who these mothers really are. They are not violent offenders, guilty of egregious crimes such as murder, rape or assault. Nearly 71 percent of all arrests of women are for first-time, nonviolent offenses. Mothers’ pathways to incarceration are complex, rooted in issues of sexual and physical violence. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, as many as 88 percent of female inmates have experienced sexual or physical abuse before going to prison.

And shackling isn’t just inhumane, it’s dangerous – to both mother and child.  In June 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called for an end to the practice of shackling mothers in labor and delivery because “physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and fetus, and have similarly made the labor and delivery process more difficult than it needs to be, thus, overall, putting the health and lives of women and unborn children at risk.”


Some states are beginning to realize that this practice must change. Currently, there are six states with legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women. In none of these states has there been a single case of a mother in labor or delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff.

 At the national level, the Bureau of Prisons in September 2008 ended shackling mothers as a matter of course in all federal correctional facilities. State legislatures and departments of correction have also responded to the sea change in shackling policy. Most recently, New Mexico, New York and Texas have enacted laws prohibiting the practice of shackling pregnant women in nearly all circumstances. In Texas, the push for legislation emanated from a coalition that included the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and state reproductive health organizations.


In fact, many of the state and national efforts to end the practice of shackling mothers have been supported by coalitions of conservative faith-based organizations and reproductive-health organizations. Despite their ideological differences on abortion, both communities have joined to urge an end to shackling. As pro-life and pro-choice advocates, they possess a shared concern for the well-being and health of the mother and unborn baby, and a shared belief that all mothers are entitled to birth their children with basic decency. 

On this Christmas, let us make a promise to all our mothers — even those who are paying a debt to society — that we will affirm the sacredness of all births and the right of all mothers to give birth unshackled, and with dignity.  


Malika Saada Saar is executive director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights.