Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shackling of Prisoners in Childbirth Should End

One of the things I periodically get worked up about is the over-medicalization of childbirth in the US. Disclosure: I had a home birth to avoid unnecessary medical procedures, so you can see where I'm coming from on this.

A few days ago, I read an editorial in the New York Times about pregnant prisoners being shackled during labor. Apparently this is fairly common in the US and only four states ban it. I had never heard about this before, and it appalls me. If you've ever given birth, you can appreciate the utter insanity of this practice. If there was ever a time when you need freedom of movement, it's during labor. Labor is unique to each woman, to each pregnancy, even. It affects everyone differently and unpredictably. Unless you're going to be completely sedated (as my mother was when she gave birth to me), you need to be able to move your body freely in order to reduce the pain of childbirth. (Although I have no doubt that any prisoner giving birth is automatically given painkillers and doesn't really have the option of natural childbirth.)

It strikes me that this practice is probably unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution, which bars "cruel and unusual punishment" and probably international law as well. Apparently Amnesty International agrees with me. Amnesty International's fact sheet on the shackling of pregnant prisoners says that "[t]he UN standard for the Treatment of all Prisoners, Rule 33, states that shackles should not be used on inmates unless they are a danger to themselves, others or property or have a history of absconding. AI considers the routine use of shackles and other restraints on pregnant prisoners is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of treatment in violation of both the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which the USA has ratified."

Amnesty International Fact Sheet on Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners

Again, if you've ever given birth, you can guess that during childbirth, prisoners probably are 100% focused on getting that baby out of their body as soon as possible. That's what the mental and physical process of labor is designed for. Your entire being (if you're not drugged) is focused on that goal. They're not thinking about escaping or doing danger to themselves or any one else. The idea is ludicrous.

I don't know how much of a movement there is to ban this practice in the remaining 46 states, but I certainly hope there is one. Frankly, this is something Congress should take up. I don't see why a federal law couldn't be passed to ban the practice as unconstitutional. That would stop the practice in all states.

Here's a round-up of articles on the issue. New York State has banned the practice since some of this articles were published.

Giving Life, Wearing Shackles and Chains, NYTimes, 7/12/09

NY Times editorial encouraging Gov. Paterson to sign antishackling bill in NY

Good article on practice of shackling pregnant women in prison

ACLU on shackling, applauding Fed. Bureau of Prisons revision of policy

Practice of Shackling Prisoners in Labor is common in US

NY one of only 4 states to prohibit shackling of prisoners in labor