Pregnant inmates in the US: an attack on Human Rights

Bianca Rodriguez
6 min readNov 30, 2020

Chaining pregnant women during pregnancy, childbirth, delivery, and postpartum is, unfortunately, a common practice in US prisons and jails, where the necessary medical care for pregnant women is not guaranteed. In some cases, this dehumanizing treatment goes beyond the practice of keeping them chained during childbirth.

Although it is not a new topic, recently we continue to see in the media current cases of female prisoners who have suffered the degrading experience of giving birth handcuffed in the US reinforcing that this truly is, unfortunately, a common practice in US prisons and jails.

Along with this news, we have also read about how these same prisoners are winning lawsuits against the prisons that gave them this treatment. However, very few states have legislated against this type of procedure in their jails and prisons. Many cases in which, even with legislation that prohibits it, shackling is still a common practice. Different organizations concerned about the Human Rights of women in the US have been fighting for years to end this practice.

This is an issue widely highlighted by an organization, RestoreHER US. America led by women of color, addressing social factors involved in criminalization and Intersectionality of unequal opportunities through the channel of education, policymaking, leadership, and advocacy. The core agenda is to protect those women directly impacted by the injustice of the system, protecting their dignity and safeguarding the rights of women who are incarcerated or have convictions.

Such experiences entail lots of physical and emotional trauma where the system has failed to protect them. RestoreHER aims to facilitate and represent women directly involved and crushed under the system of mass criminalization and incarceration. RestoreHER improves the wellbeing of these women by laying efforts for their education, healthcare, fundamental citizen rights, and rehabilitation.

RestoreHER moves with the purpose of restoring their dignity, sustaining reproductive rights, and promoting accountability in the justice system to promote harm reduction.

Give birth handcuffed

The US is one of the few countries in the world that perpetuates the harm of practicing handcuffing pregnant women and even imposing waist chains regardless of the stage of pregnancy; before, during, and after delivery. Even in labor, many inmates are transported from prison to hospital, handcuffed, and chained. This practice is considered a “standard procedure” in prisoner trafficking in most states.

For this reason, in the jails and prisons of the United States there are many are the cases of women who have given birth handcuffed and have continued like this during the postpartum period; although, their crimes were minor and did not present any danger.

The number of women who have suffered this degrading treatment is astoundingly unknown, as prison officials are not required to keep track of the number of deliveries in their custody. Quite an alarming fact, since the US is one of the countries with the most female prisoners in the world and most of them incarcerated for minor crimes or non-violent crimes. The case of immigrants who are being imprisoned simply for not having their immigration documents have had to experience this same treatment without having committed any crime other than lack of paperwork.

For many, it is a practice considered “torture” since it violates the person in one of the most vulnerable states possible. Unjustifiable and excessive, in addition to going against human dignity and women’s rights. Many institutions and organizations such as the Human Rights Committee, the United Nations Anti-Torture Committee, and Amnesty International have been responsible for denouncing this procedure as violence against women.

However, in the US, only 16 of the 50 states have developed laws to regulate this practice.

Thus, although it is not a recent practice, what is more recent is the number of cases of women who have won the trials held after having denounced these prisons for the treatment received during childbirth.

The case in Illinois has been very popular these days, where more than 80 inmates sued the Cook County Prison for suffering similar experiences between December 2006 and February 2011.

Their waters broke in the jail and they were handcuffed, transported to the hospital where they remained handcuffed until the moment of delivery, then later handcuffed to the bed.

In this case, the story of a 19-year-old young woman who had to endure the humiliation of giving birth handcuffed, while facing the trauma of her stillborn baby, stands out. Illinois is a state where there has been legislation against this procedure since 1999. For this reason, just a few weeks ago, a federal judge approved the compensation of 4.1 million dollars that will be distributed among the 80 plaintiffs.

Organizations aware of the problem have stated that this is good news, as a precedent has been set to dissuade other prisons from breaking this law. However, the case of Illinois has also made it more obvious that even in those states where this procedure is regulated, the rule is not always met.

Incarceration policies: a lack of adaptation to the status of women

In some cases, the poor or degrading treatment suffered by some areas in the US goes beyond the practice of shackling during childbirth. Many studies have shown that in most jails and prisons in the US, the necessary medical care for pregnant women is not guaranteed. In fact, in most US correctional facilities, the facilities are not adapted to suit pregnant women’s treatment. They have not developed policies or measures to pay special attention to these cases to ensure mothers and their children’s health and safety. According to the National Commission on Corrections Health System (NCCHC) and the American Public Health Association (APHA), the following criteria should be considered in prisons and US prisons:

  • The use of contraceptives, especially when it comes to women with long-term sentences.
  • Prenatal diagnostic tests (pregnancy test), including blood and urine tests, cervical scans, and HIV testing.
  • Access to family planning and the possibility of abortion.
  • Doctor visits, prenatal care, and advice, especially for women with high-risk pregnancies.
  • Counsel expectant mothers on health and safety need during pregnancy.
  • Adequate nutrition for your needs.
  • Periodic obstetric care services.
  • Written agreement on where the delivery and postpartum will take place.
  • Ban on the use of handcuffs during labor and postpartum.
  • Appropriate postnatal care.
  • Access to the newborn by inmates after delivery and the right to spend time with him.
  • Training of prison staff on how to treat pregnant women, especially in emergencies.
  • Count of the number of pregnant women in prisons and the number of deliveries in the correctional facility’s custody.
  • Policies for the implementation of the measures above.

However, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on reproductive rights in US prisons :

  • Sixteen states do not carry out any special care measures for pregnant women.
  • Only 21 include in their policies medical care for pregnant women and for those who want to abort.
  • Only 19 take into account the nutritional needs of pregnant women.
  • Only 17 take into account the needs of women at-risk pregnancy.
  • Only 14 include policies on prenatal care.
  • Only 8 specify the need for medical visits as part of prenatal care.
  • Only 6 advise pregnant women on special care in terms of health and safety.
  • Only 4 include HIV tests.
  • Only 2 keep a count of the number of pregnant women and deliveries in their custody.

None of the states analyzed meets, by any means, all the standards recommended by the APHA and NCCHC.

Thus, the main problem that anti-shackling organizations identify is that what has essentially been done in US prisons is to extend the usual procedures established for male prisoners to women.

The same applies when a male prisoner breaks an arm and has to be transferred to a hospital, as when a female prisoner goes into labor when there are different needs.

For this reason, many of the prisons where there is no legislation regarding the practice of shackling women during childbirth claim that it is a common procedure. A large part of the problem lies in the fact that, even when there are rules against this practice, prison personnel are not properly trained to act in these situations.



Bianca Rodriguez

Bianca Leon Rodriguez is a freelance writer and author. A self-confessed foodie, her mission is to help new and aspiring bloggers. You can follow her on Twitter