While teaching in prison, I was always aware of just how invisible the people incarcerated were—and how little the general public knew about the reality of life behind bars. The high security shrouding the people inside and what really happens inside the fence makes it difficult to figure out the truth. There is a widespread tendency to not believe the stories that inmates tell; instead they are seen as unworthy of dignity, fair treatment and ordinary human kindness. Two articles from the New York Times: Restraint of Pregnant Inmates Is Said to Persist in New York Despite Bans from April 9, 2015 and Handcuffed While Pregnant from September 23, 2015 expose what happens to women who are pregnant while incarcerated. It is not a pretty picture.
As a former childbirth educator, I know just how vulnerable and afraid women feel when they are pregnant, when they are in labor, when they deliver their babies and as new parents. Women have an innate fear of finding themselves alone, especially as their babies are born. After hearing hundreds of childbirth experiences, I was always struck by how fragile women felt in the face of hospital policies and procedures. It was not a time to assert their wishes or question the people who were in control of how the baby would be born. It is difficult for laboring women to move around, and they do not like to move very far away from the bed. I cannot imagine how being incarcerated exaggerates those fears and vulnerabilities. Pregnant women in jail or prison are not exactly flight risks—apt to run out of a room, down the hall, into a stairwell or out into the street. Labor is hard enough without such medieval torture practices like handcuffs, waist chains and ankle manacles. The editorial board of the September 23rd article calls these indignities “sheer cruelty and pointless degradation,” and says these practices introduce health risks to the mother and her baby.
Another article, U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies on September 28, 2015 from In These Times, a monthly magazine published by The Institute for Public Affairs in Chicago, Illinios, also points out the fact that in spite of bans on this type of treatment in several states, the practice of shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, delivering their babies and caring for newborns persists. Part of the solution is coming from outside advocacy groups who are investigating and interviewing incarcerated women who have endured these awful practices. There is hope in Delaware’s example of creating a group home program where both mothers and babies are given the education and support that they need, though that facility is locked. Another program in New York operates independently of the prison system, and mothers are allowed to keep their children, avoiding the problems of foster care.
Children suffer greatly when their mothers are incarcerated. In the interest of keeping families as healthy as possible, we could do so much better. We need to be creative in finding alternatives to incarceration, and we need to investigate the forces in our culture that create these levels of punishment, see the pathology of these practices and provide the kind of training that would not only keep both mother and baby from harm, but provide the best care and nurturing possible. All mothers count. All babies matter.