Arnita entered into Franklin County Correctional Center in Columbus, Ohio in September 2000 for a non-violent drug felony conviction. Arnita was pregnant at the time of her incarceration, and when she went into labor the U.S. Marshals placed shackles on her and transported her from the correctional facility to the hospital.
Arnita remained in shackles during the course of her labor and delivery even though she gave birth to her son by C-Section. During the C-Section, her leg was shackled to the bed. Arnita remembers the attending physician asking the Marshal, “Do you really have to keep these shackles on?” The U.S. Marshal responded, “Yes. It is procedure.” Arnita stated that “during my two day stay at the hospital, the handcuffs were always on, even when I went to the bathroom.”
Arnita’s story is shared by many mothers behind bars. Federal prisons and most state prisons routinely use restraints on pregnant women when they are in labor and when they deliver their children. Only two states have legislation prohibiting the use of restraints on women in delivery: Illinois and California. In the other 48 other states, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Prisoners, no such laws exist.
The routine use of restraints on pregnant women, particularly on women in labor and giving birth, constitutes a cruel, inhumane, and degrading practice that can rarely be justified in terms of security concerns during the delivery process.
The practice of shackling pregnant mothers in labor and delivery is also dangerous to the health and well-being of both the mother and child. There is currently no specific data on the number of women who have miscarried due to the strenuous shackling procedures. Yet obstetricians recognize that women who are in labor need to be able to move around freely and assume different positions during birthing, and that restraints render a mother and her child more vulnerable to complications.
The use of shackles and restraints on pregnant women during labor and delivery is especially cruel in light of who these mothers are. They are not violent offenders, guilty of violent crimes like murder, rape, or assault. Nearly 71 percent of all arrests of women are for non-violent larceny and theft or drug-related offenses. While violent offenses are the primary factor in the growth of the male prison population, that is not at all the case for women. For them, non-violent drug offenses are the largest source of growth.
Most women incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses are untreated addicts. For many, the use of drugs alleviates the injury, memory, and pain of being sexually violated. The shared and seamless narrative that threads together the stories of mothers suffering with addiction is the experience of sexual violence and trauma. The pathway to addiction for women is distinctly tied to how women suffer from violence to their bodies and are left to endure those injuries in silence and without help.
In prison, these women are not afforded opportunities for treatment and healing. Instead, the prison system too often subjects them to more violence. In federal correctional facilities 70 percent of the guards are men and there are pervasive incidents of male guards subjecting women to rape, sexual assault, sexual extortion, groping during body searches, and watching women undress in the shower.
And if the women are pregnant, they are placed in the inherently violent condition of being restrained or shackled during labor, while they deliver their children, and post-delivery. The Rebecca Project has even documented stories of mothers, their bodies still sore from a C-section birth, subjected to shackles placed around their stomachs.
A mother who is shackled or restrained during labor and delivery, also endures the visceral and traumatic rupture in the bonding process with her newborn baby. Because the mother is transported back to the correctional facility post-delivery, her baby is taken from her within a 24 hour period.
As we approach Mother’s Day this year, let us make a promise to all our mothers—especially those mothers behind bars like Arnita—that we will recognize their humanity, that we will honor how women struggle and suffer, that we will affirm the sacredness of all births and the need for all mothers to have the chance to give birth and raise their children with dignity. And that we end the unnecessary and cruel practice of shackling pregnant women.
Malika Saada Saar, M.Ed, JD, is the founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity, and reform for vulnerable families.