Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Reproductive Justice Violation: Shackling

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October 22, 2012

I cannot imagine a place where one might stand and have a clearer view of concentrated disadvantage based on racial, gender and class inequality in the country then from inside the walls of a women’s prison. – Beth E. Richie
(“Feminist Ethnographies of Women in Prison” Beth E. Richie)

Prisons and jails were constructed by and for men. They then became a way of perpetuating the oppression of disadvantaged groups – like people of color, who happen to be disproportionately incarcerated. While the conception of our prison system may not seem pertinent, acknowledging this fact helps to illuminate the disadvantage that exists in these institutions today. Over the past thirty years, the number of women in jails and prisons has grown rapidly. Despite the rise in the incarcerated women population, prisons and jails frequently deny or fail to provide adequate reproductive health care for women.

One of the many egregious acts of ignorance of the needs of female inmates is “the oftentimes arbitrary shackling by the waists, ankles and wrists of pregnant women during labor, delivery and recovery and transport to and from medical facilities.”

The inhumanity of shackling of pregnant women who are incarcerated should be unquestionable. Shackling women during labor hinder their ability to position themselves to relieve pain and complete delivery – and if you’ve ever delivered a child, I bet you couldn’t imagine that pain worsening. This practice also puts the health of the woman in danger, as it restricts the ability of a physician to act quickly and effectively should any complications arise. Furthermore, both the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists condemn the practice of shackling.

Today, there are only ten states that restrict the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women in the United States. Georgia remains one of the 40 states that do not.

According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, Georgia has one of the largest female prison populations and one of the highest female incarceration rates in the country. Currently, neither the Georgia Department of Corrections nor the majority of local jurisdictions delineates operating procedures or policy that prohibit (or even address) restraint practices for inmates.

In the past year, the Georgia legislature introduced a bill that would prohibit the practice of shackling pregnant women during labor, delivery and recovery. HB 653, introduced by Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield and co-sponsored by Rep. Simone Bell and Rep. Alisha Morgan, would forbid the use of restraints, e.g., handcuffs and shackles, on incarcerated pregnant women during labor, delivery and recovery. Although the bill has not yet been passed, I am pleased to say that Georgia has taken a step in the right direction.

Data from the Department of Justice estimates that, nationally, 5% of women who enter state prisons and 6% of women who enter jail are pregnant at the time of their arrest. The majority of women prisoners are mothers. These statistics call for explicit policy and legislation, both nationally and in my home state, that protect women’s rights to labor and give birth safely and with dignity.

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