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In Labor and In Chains

Malika Saada Saar

Using restraints on women in prison during labor and delivery is cruel, inhumane and degrading and rarely justified on security grounds. Our video profiles a woman shackled during childbirth.

When she became a mother, her body was
shackled. gave birth to her son with her ankles shackled to the hospital bed.
Arnita remained shackled as she held her son for the first time and while she
nursed him. Like Arnita, most mothers behind bars are restrained
during labor, delivery and post-delivery as a matter of routine practice in our
nation’s jails and prisons.

Shawanna Nelson is another mother who was
shackled during labor, but she brought a lawsuit against the Arkansas
Department of Corrections for cruel and unusual punishment. Thanks to her
courage and the common sense of a panel of judges, the 8th Circuit
Court of Appeals recently ruled and the shackling of prisoners during labor is

In most state prisons and jails, restraints are routinely used on pregnant
women, including when they are in labor and when they deliver their babies. The
use of restraints on pregnant women, particularly on women in labor and giving
birth, constitutes a cruel, inhumane and degrading practice that rarely can be
justified in terms of security concerns during the delivery process. In the six
states that outlawed shackling pregnant inmates, there have been no cases of
mothers in labor or delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security
guards or medical staff.

The practice of shackling pregnant mothers in labor and delivery is also
dangerous to the health and well-being of both the mother and the baby. In June
2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that
“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.”

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draconian practice of shackling pregnant women is being reconsidered and in
many cases prohibited due to both proven and potential harm to the mother and
child. In June 2007, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released a statement calling for an end
to the practice of shackling mothers in labor and delivery due to the potential
harm posed to the mother and unborn child. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in
September 2008 ended shackling mothers as a matter of routine 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 including the Texas Catholic Conference and state
reproductive health organizations.

Across the country, national
and state-wide coalitions of faith-based and reproductive health organizations
have emerged to urge for reform that is just, moral, and safe for mothers,
their unborn babies, and medical and correctional staff. As members of the
faith and reproductive health communities, these persons 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

But there is
still work to be done. The draconian practice of shackling mothers during labor
and delivery should not be prohibited by statute in less than a handful of
states. At the beginning of the 21st century, no mother should be
subject to shackles during the sacred act of birth in any American state or