The number of women incarcerated in the United States has increased 5 percent annually since 1990 and at a rate 50 percent higher than men. Most are incarcerated in state detention facilities, and 5 to 10 percent are pregnant, resulting in 2,000 babies born annually to incarcerated mothers. Most of these incarcerated women are subjected to ankle, wrist and belly shackles while being brought to prenatal doctors’ visits, en route to delivery, during labor and delivery and during post-delivery recovery.
In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its policies and started to ban the shackling of pregnant women in all circumstances, except for those that pose the greatest safety and security risks. Twenty-one states have responded to the federal call to end pregnant shackling and passed laws of their own. Maine is the only state in New England that still allows for the routine shackling of pregnant women.
Correctional and medical associations often are at odds with one another. But when it comes to shackling pregnant women, they’re on the same side. The American Correctional Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the American Correctional Health Services Administration and the American Jail Association, as well as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetrics and Neonatal Nurses and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care all oppose the routine shackling of pregnant women and for good reason.
Shackling pregnant women increases risk of harm to the mother and the unborn child. Shackling exacerbates imbalance and increases risk of fall. Further, shackles prevent the hands from breaking falls. Preventing a pregnant woman from walking during labor can decelerate labor, increase pain, cause fetal distress and increase chances of clotting. During labor, shackling can prevent medical staff from performing necessary, emergency procedures or assisting as necessary in the delivery. When emergency cesarean sections are required, the time taken to remove shackles can lead to fetal demise. Postnatal shackling also negatively impacts a mother’s ability to breastfeed, her postnatal recovery and her psychological health. Further, the majority of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons are serving time for drug-related or non-violent crimes, discrediting those who claim incarcerated women must be shackled when laboring given their alleged violent nature and flight risk.
All New England states but Maine have answered the federal call to reform their policies and have begun abolishing the practice of shackling pregnant women. Maine inexcusably is overdue.
Maine has a chance to introduce human dignity back into the incarceration of pregnant women by passing LD 1013, An Act to Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners. Sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, and co-sponsored by 60 additional legislators from both parties, this bill abolishes the shackling of pregnant women in all but extraordinary circumstances. Those concerned about the safety of corrections staff need not worry. The legislation includes provisions for shackling if it’s warranted and the reasons are documented and made available annually for public scrutiny.
It is time for Maine to answer the federal call to end the routine shackling of pregnant women and introduce some safety, prudence and human dignity into the pregnant and birthing experiences of the incarcerated mother and her innocent newborn child.
Lillian Shields is a graduate assistant and instructor of peer education at the Student Wellness Resource Center at the University of Maine. She will receive her master’s degree in social work from UMaine in August.