Prison guards escort an inmate held in the Administrative Segregation unit to her appointment with the prison's OB/GYN.

Prison That Forces Inmates to Give Birth in Shackles Being Sued

Last week, a former inmate of Milwaukee County filed a lawsuit alleging that multiple pregnant people were forced to give birth in shackles while being held there. This comes on the heels of another lawsuit against the jail in December of 2016, when a newborn baby died shortly after birth. Feministing has covered this issue for years, yet little has changed – our justice system is still actively abusing inmates and claiming it’s for our protection.

The most recent lawsuit is being filed on behalf of former inmate Melissa Hall who was forced to give birth with her wrists shackled to her waist and her legs chained together. The shackling left her with marks and bruises on her body, and made it difficult for hospital workers to support Hall or give her an epidural for pain.

Unfortunately, the shackling of pregnant people in prison is very common. There are 12,000 pregnant people incarcerated every year and only 22 states have laws against the inmates being shackled during birth — and even these laws have loopholes that allow the prisons to get away with the practice. In a report from a non-profit criminal reform group called The Correctional Association of New York, 46% of women reported being shackled on their way to the hospital despite a state law saying that is illegal.

By being forbidden to move during birth, laboring inmates are left in severe pain, with bruises, their health and the health of their babies at risk.  This practice is completely inhumane, unnecessary – imagine trying to escape prison while in labor and surrounded by medical staff – and unacceptable.

Incarceration impacts marginalized individuals at a dramatically higher rate, with black women being 2.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women and nearly 75% of incarcerated women having a history of mental health issues. Shackling people in labor requires a complete disregard for human rights, one which disproportionately affects these already marginalized women.

Luckily, there are organizations that are working to support them, such as the Prison Birth Project, which helps train previously incarcerated parents to work within a reproductive justice framework at women’s prisons. Or the Achieving Baby Care Success program, which allows for women to be with their newborn babies through an in-house nursery system. In addition, The Correctional Association of New York is using the previously mentioned report to start the Campaign to End Reproductive Injustice, aimed at increasing care for reproductive health in prison as well as working to end the practice of shackling entirely. These programs deserve our support, attention, and time if we are going to change the way birth and care for pregnant people is addressed within our prison systems.

Birth is already incredibly politicized and medicalized within our culture, even for the most privileged of people, much less those in prison. The lack of care for pregnant inmates is unacceptable, inhumane, and horrifying. It is on all of us to support the programs and organizations that are working to end a practice that never should have been allowed in the first place.

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