By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
Over the years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that on average 3% of women in federal prisons and 4% of those in state prisons were pregnant upon arrival. According to a story written in 2015 in the Guardian, the number of women who cycle through US jails is increasing by approximately 1.6% each year, to 109,100 in 2014, while the number of women in prisons has risen nearly tenfold in the past 40 years, to 111,300 in 2013.
It’s an alarming trend that has required that states rethink how we address the needs of pregnant women while incarcerated and ensure a safe delivery and birth for these pregnancies. States have begun to better understand the restrictions and confinement inherent in prisons and how they can make pregnancy and birthing traumatic. One such confinement technique has been under scrutiny for over 20 years. The practice of shackling pregnant inmates, whether through the use of ankle irons, handcuffs, or belly chains, during both the pregnancy and delivery process, has been under review. In fact by 2010, at least 10 states had passed anti-shackling legislation and today that number tops 26 legislative bodies that have looked at this issue and made the decision to do something.
Currently, In Wisconsin, there is no statutory guidance on how correctional facilities restrain pregnant women. This is out of step with correctional practices nationwide. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshal Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement all have policies that restrict shackling pregnant individuals. In fact, a recent lawsuit alleges that at least 40 women in Wisconsin have been shackled while giving birth since 2011.
In one case, a woman was shackled and handcuffed during 21 hours of labor. In another instance, corrections officers overruled medical staffs’ request to remove a patient’s belly-chain—a device which ties a person’s wrists to their waist and attaches iron shackles to their legs. As a result, hospital staff had difficultly administering an epidural and providing necessary medical care. This lawsuit is just one of three shackling-related lawsuits Milwaukee County jails have faced in recent years.
That is why I introduced Senate Bill 363, which would restrict shackling of pregnant and postpartum women. In addition, it would allow incarcerated women who are pregnant or have recently given birth, access to certain health and emotional services through something known as doula support. A doula is a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support, but not medical care, to a mother before, during, and shortly after childbirth. Choices in Childbirth, a maternal health advocacy organization, notes that doula services can reduce the need for caesarean births by 28 percent. Given that the additional cost to Medicaid for each caesarean birth is $4,459—generally 50 percent more expensive than vaginal births—the support from doula services, along with the mitigated harm from shackling, can provide significant cost savings.
Shackling women who are giving birth is cruel, dangerous, and rarely necessary. Through this bill, we have an ability to create better health outcomes for both the mother and child, while saving taxpayer dollars through reduced health care expenditures and reduced litigation costs. Bottom line, the shackling of women is unsafe and inhumane.