Birth in chains

By Michelle Chen Jul 10, 2009

Last November, Venita’s baby was getting ready to enter the world, but Venita couldn’t move. While she was going into contractions, her ankles were shackled, her hands cuffed, and her waist tied. For extra assurance, her hands were further restrained with a black box. Just following procedure, the officer said as he escorted her to the birthing room. The pain and joy of child birth may be the most intense experience a woman will ever have. For incarcerated pregnant women in New York, however, they’re prisoners first and mothers second. Venita, who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York, and taken to a local hospital to deliver her baby, is one of many women across the state who have been forced to endure the childbirth process while physically restrained. Several states have laws restricting the practice of shackling. The New York state legislature has overwhelmingly passed a bill to protect incarcerated women from being restrained during labor and as they recover from childbirth. The legislation, awaiting the Governor’s signature as of Thursday, would also restrict the use of restraints during transportation to and from the hospital. The practice of shackling during childbirth isn’t just abhorrent to imagine; it’s an issue of civil rights. The concern that a woman might try to “escape” during labor is so illogical, shackling can only be seen as a testament to the rote brutality inflicted on incarcerated women. Like solitary confinement, the restraint of women in labor represents the degree of isolation and degradation society accepts under a warped concept of public safety. The Rebecca Project outlines how shackling fits into a culture of dehumanization in the prison system:

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…. 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. Pregnant inmates 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. In every case of a mother who is shackled or restrained during labor and delivery, the baby is taken from her, often 24 hours after the baby’s birth.

RH Reality Check reports that the “anti-shackling” movement, with its powerful symbolism, has brought together an array of women’s rights and human rights activists, who see physical freedom in childbirth as a matter of choice, health and basic human dignity. Dana Sussman of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports the New York bill, said that her organization has been "primarily an abortion access organization, but (working on the anti-shackling campaign) broadens us as a reproductive justice group… The reproductive justice community believes strongly in the full spectrum of health care, including abortion access and childbirth services.” Though the female prison population has exploded in recent years, such degradation is the side of reproductive rights that doesn’t get much air-time in the mainstream culture wars. Maybe it’s the fact that New York’s female prisoners are mostly Black and Latino, or that they’re likely to come from poverty-stricken and disenfranchised communities, or that their lives, and by extension their families, are seen as inherently deviant or worthless. Whatever it is, the quiet traumas these mothers suffer while inside are generally ignored on the outside. For pregnant women in prison, the chains are both metaphorical and real. Image: Mark Savage / SF Chronicle