Human Rights

Incarcerated Women Are Still Being Shackled During Childbirth

Despite a ban on the practice, a 2014 survey found 23 of the 27 women who gave birth in New York prisons since 2009 had been shackled anyway.

Incarcerated Women Are Still Being Shackled During Childbirth
Getty Images / Ian Waldie

The number of incarcerated women rose 700 percent between 1980 and 2014. That's an increase of nearly 200,000 women. And more women in prison means more women giving birth behind bars. 

One of the most controversial practices that still takes place across the country is shackling women during childbirth.

The American Psychological Association says the practice can have negative physical and mental health effects on mothers and infants.

Theresa Kleinhaus is a civil rights lawyer representing more than 40 women who were shackled during childbirth at the Milwaukee County Jail.

"There's no reason to believe that women in labor are violent or pose a threat," Kleinhaus said.

"So many of the corrections policies we have in the U.S. are really modeled from a few generations ago when many fewer people were incarcerated, and the people who were incarcerated were much more violent and they were male," Kleinhaus said. 

"Then you apply those principles in 2017 to a 20-year-old woman who's in jail for retail theft and nine months pregnant, and it just makes no sense," Kleinhaus added. 

On the federal level, shackling during childbirth is restricted by just about every agency — the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marshals, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, to name a few. But more than 86 percent of U.S. prisoners are in state prisons.

Several states have either taken no action to outlaw the practice or are having trouble enforcing the shackling ban already on the books. 

New York is one of 18 states that have laws restricting shackling during childbirth. Despite that, a 2014 survey found 23 of the 27 women who gave birth in New York prisons since 2009 had been shackled anyway. There have been similar reports of non-compliance in Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

In Wisconsin, where Kleinhaus has represented multiple women in cases against the Milwaukee County Jail, there's no law banning the practice. Shackling was even defended by Milwaukee County Sheriff and controversial cable news commentator David Clarke. 

Sheriff David Clarke's Jail And Its Year Of Constant Controversy

Sheriff David Clarke's Jail And Its Year Of Constant Controversy

Terrill Thomas went seven days without water and lost 30 pounds before dying of thirst. He was just 1 of 4 deaths at Milwaukee County Jail in 2016.


"There's the threat of escape, there's the threat of assault. It is always present," Clarke said.

But Kleinhaus disagrees. "What we found in the Jane Doe case — she was also restrained … the inmate's midwife requested that the restraints be removed, because midwives know that women in labor are focused on bringing a healthy person into the world and surviving a really hard experience, and their focus is not hurting anybody or escaping from anything," Kleinhaus said. 

Despite legal action, Milwaukee County Jail at this time has no plans to change its shackling policy. 

Determining how many women are restrained during childbirth or just figuring out how many pregnant women are incarcerated is a guessing game. While the Bureau of Justice Statistics counts how many women are in prison, there is no current data on the number of pregnant inmates.