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LaTasha Mayes's picture

A woman is in labor — separated from her loved ones and shackled. She struggles against her restraints as she tries to follow the doctor’s instructions. Weighed down and on a short tether, she cannot position herself properly, let alone find any comfort. The pain of labor is intensified by degradation at the hands of her captor. It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel; far from fiction, it is the reality of far too many incarcerated women, across the country and right here in Ohio. 

In Ohio and several states, the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women is a common practice. That’s a growing problem because the number of incarcerated women has risen over 153 percent, with an estimated 25 percent of incarcerated women pregnant at the time of their arrest or having given birth at some point during the year prior to incarceration. Ohio officials report that the number of incarcerated pregnant women is on the rise — largely due to the opioid crisis.


In addition to being inhumane, this draconian practice is dangerous. Shackling pregnant women poses a significant risk to the health and safety of both the woman and fetus throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery. During pregnancy, restraints can imperil women as their mobility is limited, increasing the likelihood of falling and decreasing the ability to protect oneself during a fall. Think about it; if you’re chained in ankle restraints and handcuffs, you’re at a greater risk of losing your balance. If you fall while all of your limbs are tethered, you’re going to have a hard time catching yourself or breaking the fall.


Falling isn’t the only risk. Hypertensive diseases — such as high blood pressure — cause nearly 18 percent of maternal deaths in the United States. (It’s probably safe to say that being shackled during pregnancy can’t be good for one’s blood pressure.) Preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that includes high blood pressure and damage to other organs, is difficult to treat if a patient is shackled.


Shackling also interferes with safe and normal labor and delivery and the ability of doctors to administer proper care. An ACLU report found that moving around is "critical during labor, delivery and postpartum" because women giving birth often need to be able to walk around, move their legs freely, or just be able to move to help manage labor pain. Any woman who has been through a vaginal delivery knows that you have to be able to move to get into the best positions for delivery. Women who are shackled are often prevented from doing that. Shackling (often using leg and abdomen restraints) can lead to bruising and can "prevent mothers from effectively healing and breastfeeding."


There are countless stories of incarcerated women being abused during their pregnancies because of this barbaric practices. Recently, Kirenda Welch, a Black pregnant woman in Florida was arrested on a suspended license charge and incarcerated in a Jacksonville jail. Catherine Thompson, a corrections officer, used restraints on Welch’s wrists and ankles — making it difficult for Welch to move. The officer reportedly punched Welch in the face and stomach, pepper-sprayed her and made racist remarks.


“This Officer Thompson called me Kunta Kinte several times before she put me in shackles at the ankles and handcuffs at the wrists. I complied with every one of her requests. I complied with her requests to shackle me only for her to punch me in the face and stomach over a dozen times. I was just in disbelief,” Welch reported.


This horrific example of abuse is emblematic of the systemic racism and sexism Black women face within the criminal justice system at the intersection of reproductive healthcare access. Shackling pregnant women and denying incarcerated women access to adequate health care is an assault on reproductive justice and is unconscionable. Incarceration does not give authorities the right to deny basic human rights, especially in the case of pregnant women.


Currently, 18 states have legislation that prohibits or limits the use of shackles on incarcerated women during pregnancy including Pennsylvania. SisterSong Women of Color for Reproductive Justice won a tremendous victory this past March to end shackling during childbirth in North Carolina. However, Ohio is not one of them. Fortunately, the Ohio General Assembly has introduced such legislation, the Humane and Effective Anti-Shackling bill, House Bill 688, sponsored by State Representative Nickie Antonio. The proposed legislation would: 


●      Give protections to all pregnant women and individuals, regardless of trimester;

●      Include reporting requirements;

●      Include oversight and accountability requirements;

●      Include privacy provisions during exams and while giving birth; and

●      Ensure that health care providers have input when certain shackles are used.


It is past time to protect incarcerated pregnant women in Ohio. Too many pregnant women are suffering great injustice and harm while inside the criminal justice system. Our state and country have a lot of work to do to abolish a system that is inherently racism and sexism. Passing HB 688 is the first step in ensuring that incarcerated pregnant women have a chance at a healthy labor and delivery and reproductive justice.


Marcela Howell is the founder and executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda and La'Tasha D. Mayes, MSPPM, is the founder and executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice

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