One of the biggest hurdles pregnant women in jail have had to face is securing the right to have a dignified labor and childbirth process. Most have to endure grueling pain while exposed in a room with a law enforcement escort and with their legs shackled together – even as the newborn was exiting the birth canal.
Currently, 13 states outlaw the practice of shackling pregnant state prisoners. Federal law already prohibits prisons from doing this to women inmates. Thirteen other states have introduced bills to ban the practice, as well. Those states include California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
This criminology issue is one that has been problematic for decades, but it drew international attention with the case of Juana Villegas. She won $200,000 against a Nashville, Tennessee sheriff’s office and Davidson County where the sheriff’s office is located for her mistreatment while she was pregnant, in delivery, and while receiving postpartum care. She was in a car with her other three children and driving home from a doctor’s appointment when an officer arrested her for driving without a valid driver’s license. Villegas went into labor three days later. Now that she has won the suit, her lawyers are petitioning for her to be granted U.S. citizenship because of the treatment she received.
The Health Risks of Shackling a Pregnant Inmate During Labor
Law officials who have been willing to talk about the issue say that although they realize the practice of shackling poses a danger to both the woman and her unborn child in these cases, they are often concerned about the risk of escape or violence committed by the prisoners. Some of the women shackled, they say, are violent offenders and their first commitment is to ensure the general public remains safe from harm.
There are additional risks that come for the baby after the delivery, too. A shackled mother cannot breastfeed or bond with a newborn in the initial hours of life when it is so critical for her to do so. Studies have shown babies left to the cold, sterile environment of a hospital who do not have their mothers support do not thrive as well as those who have access to their mothers.
Prison Programs for Pregnant Women
All is not lost for pregnant women serving sentences, though. Two programs which give women access to their children are prison nurseries and community-based residential parenting programs. Prison nurseries let incarcerated mothers take care of their children for a limited amount of time in a special housing unit inside the prison. Community parenting programs let prisoners keep their children with them in special residential settings in the community while they serve their time. Only nine states have prison nursery programs in place or in development. Seven have community-based residential programs. Illinois and California have both.
For children who end up staying with relatives during their mother’s incarceration, there are children’s visitation programs that help keep the mother-child connection positive. These programs offer parenting classes, counseling and other activities that help reinforce the mother-child bond. Sometimes, children who are experiencing the break from their mothers need anger management and communications liaisons to help repair the emotional damage done by their mothers’ sentences.
Although the prison system can present hurdles with birth and delivery for incarcerated mothers, the chance for them to bond with their children after birth remains good. Prison programs that allow mothers to strengthen their bonds with their children and properly parent them are excellent ways to cope with the inevitable sentences they face. Having positive access to their children helps them to stay focused on the day when their sentences end and their “free” lives with their children can begin.
Special Thanks to My Guest Writer:
Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education to technology to public policy, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead. She currently writes for a Criminology resource.