“We still do that?”: Shackling Pregnant Prisoners in Maryland

When you talk to most college students about shackling incarcerated pregnant people before, after, and while they are labor, most are surprised.  Many look at me incredulously and ask, “We still do that?”

Yes, we still do that. We still shackle pregnant people for all of their medical appointments, as they give birth, and as they are leaving the hospital even though it has been deemed dangerous, dehumanizing, and unnecessary by national organizations like American Medical Association (AMA), American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and American Public Health Association (APHA). Federal courts have ruled that shackling those in labor is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (that one about “cruel and unusual punishment”). The United Nations has also prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners and considers the practice a form of torture (though the U.S. would not want to ruin their streak of neglecting to ratify most conventions on human rights that the UN creates).

From 1980 to 2010, the population of imprisoned women rose by 646% from 15,118 to 112,797. This drastic increase was due almost entirely to Nixon’s famed (and arguably failed) War on Drugs. Many of these people are imprisoned for non-violent offenses, often because they are caught in possession of illegal substances, or because of property offenses. That said, pregnant people are often shackled regardless of their offense, to ensure that they cannot escape. They wear ankle and wrist cuffs as they go into the hospital, and then their wrists, ankles, and abdomen are chained to their hospital beds as they go into labor. As they leave the hospital, all restraints are put back on. By restricting pregnant people’s movements as they go into labor, as well as impeding doctor’s abilities to help ensure a safe delivery, we needlessly endanger lives. Pregnant people go through immense amounts of pain as they go into labor, and it is overly-precautionary—to the point that it is demeaning and violent—to restrain them in wrist and ankle manacles. Additionally, there have been no reports of those who are in labor or who have just given labor escaping.

Currently, there are only 18 states that prohibit shackling pregnant prisoners—let’s make Maryland number 19. In the last legislative session, there was a move by Delegate Mary Washington to prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners in Maryland. This bill did not pass the last session, but was an incredibly important move toward the ending of shackling in Maryland. At this link, you can see the actual legal language for the bill, sponsors, judicial proceedings, and other important facets of the action taken against shackling in Maryland. Here are some of the precepts of the last bill (from the ACLU of Maryland):

  • Prohibits use of any physical restraint during labor and delivery.
  • Prohibits use of physical restraints in the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy in any context, absent an individualized determination of substantial flight risk or security circumstance that jeopardizes staff, the inmate or public safety.
  • Prohibits use of any leg or waist restraints for women in their 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy and requires that any restraint used be the least restrictive possible.
  •   Require that correctional staff remove restraints upon the request of a health professional.
  • Require that medical professionals decide when it is safe to return a woman to prison.
  • Applies to all prisons and local correctional facilities.
  • Require that each instance of physical restraint be recorded, retained for five years, and reported to Governor and the General Assembly.

If you want to advocate on UMBC’s campus so that more students can learn about the violence of shackling (and hopefully feel inspired to act further against shackling), please feel free to contact me at meman1(at)umbc(dot)edu. I can get you hooked up with the anti-shackling team at UMBC and some other advocates from Power Inside, a grassroots organization in Baltimore that serves women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence and oppression. We would love for you to join us and help out in any way you can with anti-shackling activism on campus.

To receive updates on the legislative process to end shackling in Maryland, you can follow the Facebook page Stop Shackling Pregnant Women In Maryland.

If you are interested in learning more about shackling, you can visit the following links and learn more:

ACLU Brief on Shackling

NOW Anti-Shackling Kit

ACLU of Maryland – Info on HB 829

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