Written by Katherine McMahon
The United States has incomparable rates of incarceration, and in 2015 there were 111,495 women in state and federal prisons. It is estimated that in 2005, 80% of incarcerated women were already mothers of young children. Many of the women who are incarcerated are young, have committed non-violent crimes and are first time offenders. There are a variety of factors that contribute to incarceration (race, economic injustice, unequal access to education and employment). Women can enter jail under a variety of circumstances, sometimes already mothers, often already pregnant, and sometimes unknowing of the fact that they are pregnant. In 2006 nearly 50% of all pregnancies were unplanned in the United States. Sometimes when a woman enters a correctional institution she is made aware of her pregnancy for the first time. The policy is for these women to be informed and have the full range of legally available options for continuing or terminating the pregnancy. Incarcerated women should have access to the same medical attention that a woman who is not incarcerated would have full access to.
However, this medical care for incarcerated women is circumstantial and can vary from state to state and even jail to jail. There are very few specifics provided for the prison system to follow under the law, leaving each system to make their own rules and regulations over what medical needs they will cover. Stories of inadequate care abound. Incarcerated women who have asked their guards for medical attention because they believe they are in labor have experienced unnecessary delays. Women give birth in their cells with no medical staff to assist in cases of emergencies with the mother or the child, and even when they have access to medical attention they are often still shackled.
The shackling of women during labor and delivery presents a significant danger to the safety and wellbeing of women and babies. Few states have laws banning the use of shackles during pregnancy, most states ignore the medical advice showing that shackles are unnecessary during labor. Obstetricians report being unable to find the guard to unlock shackles when an emergency cesarean section is needed, delaying emergency care. Women have filed complaints and publicized their stories about their long term health issues and injuries from being shackled during and after labor. Not to mention that this practice of shackling women while pregnant or in labor is demeaning and humiliating.
Pregnant women are entitled to proper medical care by competent medical professionals. Criminal justice reform is needed in order to have stronger federal regulations over what medical care is provided to incarcerated women and how it is provided. Incarcerated women need advocates who are not behind bars, nurses and doctors prepared to fight for proper medical care and criminal justice reform. For more information about pregnant women behind bars check out some of these resources:
Katherine McMahon is a third-year student at the University of Oregon in the School of Journalism and Communications. Originally from Seattle, Washington, Katherine has been involved in social justice since middle school. After working with organizations such as Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood, Katherine plans to pursue a career in journalistic social justice.
Graphic courtesy of Bitch Media.