In "Land of the Free," Why Are Women Giving Birth in Chains?

America is almost unique in the civilised world for forcing pregnant prisoners to undergo childbirth cuffed and shackled

In 2007, a 17-year-old girl called Cora Fletcher was charged with retail theft. Over a year later, after she missed a court date, she was sent to the Cook County jail, in Illinois. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

During a pre-natal check-up at the facility, her baby appeared to have no heartbeat, so she was sent to the county hospital. As the medical team tried to induce her, Fletcher claims that both her hands and both her feet were shackled to either side of the bed. Only when she finally went into labor, three days later, was one hand and one foot released. It's hard to imagine a more crucifying way to force a woman to try to give birth.

Sadly for Fletcher, there was no payoff for the trauma and humiliation she was forced to endure, as her baby was born dead.

Fletcher was one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought against Cook County on behalf of 80 female prisoners and detainees who also claimed to have had similar experiences of being shackled during childbirth. Just under two weeks ago, the county agreed to a settlement of $4.1m dollars payable to the women, who will each receive between $5,000 and $45,000.

The Cook County sheriff's office made it clear, however, that they were agreeing to the deal for expediency's sake only and were admitting to no wrongdoing. This despite the fact that Illinois became the first state in the union to ban the practice of shackling women during labor, back in 1999 - at least seven years before any of the women named in the lawsuit had their babies. A spokesman for the department, Frank Bilecki, went so far as to issue a statement claiming the jail's treatment of (female) detainees is the "most progressive in the nation".

If that is the case, women in America better watch their backs.

The practices of making pregnant women wear belly chains and of shackling their hands and feet before, after and sometimes during labor, are just another way in which the United States distinguishes itself - or fails to distinguish itself, perhaps - as anything but a bastion of liberty and justice and a champion of women's rights. No other country in the "civilized world" finds shackling pregnant women a necessary or desirable procedure. The practice has been repeatedly and vigorously condemned by the committee against torture at the United Nations; and it has been decried by both the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (You can imagine how doctors relish the prospect of trying to safely deliver a baby whose mother is in chains.)

Yet, here in America, only 16 of the 50 states have any kind of legislation to restrict or ban the practice. And as was evidenced in the Cook County, Illinois law suit, even states that do have laws on their books don't necessarily feel compelled to uphold them.

No one knows exactly how many women have been subjected to this degrading treatment, as prison officials are not obliged to keep records of pregnancies and births that occur to women in their custody. That in itself speaks volumes about the lack of attention paid to the needs of the exploding female prison population. (The US has more women prisoners than any country in the world, and their numbers are increasing at twice the rate of the male population.) When you ask a prison official why women are shackled when they are in transit or away from the facility, the answer will invariably be because that is standard prison procedure and that leg irons, handcuffs and belly chains are necessary to prevent the prisoner escaping and to protect the public.

Chaining up prisoners who are dangerous felons is one thing, but as the vast majority of incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders who, for the most part, are only guilty of crimes of poverty and addiction, a one-size-fits-all shackling policy is not only unnecessary, but dangerous. Especially since the chances of a woman in the middle of labor going on the lam are almost nonexistent. That should be self-evident, but it seems that no allowance is made for the physical vulnerabilities of women, even when they are pregnant.

And so you have a situation where someone like Cora Fletcher finds herself literally and figuratively bound by practices that would be harsh if applied to a multiple murderer, never mind a teenage girl who stole something from a store. As if the rigors of childbirth were not punishing enough, the state chooses to make the experience as torturous for a woman as possible.

There is reason, however, to hope that the days of this barbaric practice are numbered. The recent $4.1m settlement was welcomed by human rights advocates and many lawmakers as a strong message to jails and prisons that shackling women before, during and after childbirth is unlawful and unconstitutional. Cook County has paid a hefty price for its decision to violate their own state's laws. Other local governments can expect to do the same.

Advocacy groups are gearing up to get legislation passed in the 34 states that still allow the practice and are pushing for a federal standard to ensure that the laws are upheld in all 50. It's a shame that it will, apparently, require endless lawsuits and relentless campaigning to put an end to a practice that any reasonable person should find abhorrent. But if that's what it takes, so be it.

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