Should a Woman Be Shackled While Giving Birth? Most States Think So

PHOTO: Pregnant

In 33 states across the country, pregnant inmates, including women being held exclusively for immigration-related offenses, can be shackled to their hospital beds during the birthing process.

On September 28, that changed in California. Under a new law, jails will no longer be allowed to use "leg irons, waist chains and handcuffs behind the body" on women during labor, delivery or recovery.

"Pregnant women are the most vulnerable and the least threatening in the prison system and should rarely, if ever, be restrained," Alicia M. Walters, a reproductive justice advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, wrote after the news.

The state's decision is noteworthy in part because it highlights harsh prison conditions for pregnant mothers in the rest of the United States.

While states like Illinois, Texas, Vermont and Colorado also have laws that discourage the practice of shackling female inmates during labor, most states still don't have such regulations on the books. Even in Illinois, where anti-shackling laws are in place, a class-action lawsuit filed by 80 female inmates earlier this year alleged that they were restrained while giving birth and recovering. The women were ultimately granted a $4.1 million settlement from Cook County Jail.

While women's rights advocates want to see shackled childbirth abolished across the board, cases involving immigrant detainees are particularly controversial, since some detainees haven't committed any crime beyond being in the country without status, or crossing the border without authorization.

In particular, jails in Maricopa County, Arizona, have garnered media attention in recent years for their treatment of undocumented pregnant women. Two of the highest profile cases of shackling occurred in the district overseen by the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff."

"It doesn't surprise me that these cases have gotten a lot of media attention. A lot of organizations are watching that county closely because of Sheriff Joe," the ACLU's Walters said. "There are a lot of really questionable practices out there, especially when it comes to women of color."

Two mothers, Miriam Mendiola-Martinez and Alma Chacon, said that they faced cruel treatment when they gave birth as inmates at Maricopa jails. Both women, who were in jail for immigration-related offenses, say that they were shackled to their hospital beds with a leg restraint before and after they gave birth, without their husbands and in the presence of a prison guard. Chacon says that she was restrained even as she gave birth.

Mothers in some jails are permitted ongoing access to their newborns in the days and months after they've given birth, but both Mendiola-Martinez and Chacon say they that was not the case for them. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for comment regarding their policy on mothers holding their newborns.

Late last year, Miriam Mendiola-Martinez filed a federal suit against Arpaio, as well as as the officers, doctors and nurses involved in the 2009 incident. The case has not yet been resolved, but earlier this year a law was passed in Arizona prohibiting some of the harsher forms of shackling during labor.

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