Spotlight Blog Series on Women in Prison & Detention Centers

V-Day’s Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women has been created in collaboration with Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins and formerly incarcerated women and activists working on prison reform and prison abolition. In this blog series you will hear from women whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the prison and detention system on issues as far ranging as: trauma and abuse; shackling; transgender experiences; dignity; health and mental health; experiences of long term inmates; the youth/school to prison pipeline; the experiences of mothers and children navigating the immigration system; higher education in prison; and reentry and technology. Read others from the series

The Experience of Pregnant Women in Prison:
Shackling, Medical Treatment & Diet

My story is a freedom song of struggle. It is about finding one’s purpose, how to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one’s self.

– Coretta Scott King

Many women come to prison and find out that they are pregnant after routine tests are administered by the medical staff. Most often they are single mothers that come from communities with high rates of poverty, crime and low educational attainment. This can be a very daunting time for an expectant mother-to-be. There are so many things to consider about being pregnant but then those concerns are multiplied when an expectant mother is incarcerated.

The shackling of incarcerated women who are pregnant and in labor is a routine practice throughout the criminal justice system. It is considered by the Department of Corrections to be a safety measure to ensure that people in prison do not escape or engage in physical harm while being transported to and from various locations, including court dates, hospital trips, funerals or traveling to other correctional facilities. Although this is seen by Corrections as a safety measure, in reality it has nothing to do with public safety. It is an added form of punishment.

This practice is dangerous and a public health issue for pregnant women and it needs to be addressed as well as rectified. While there is movement toward change in areas there needs to be a universal policy throughout the United States.

Throughout my pregnancy I was put in restraints going to and from the hospital for my scheduled prenatal doctor’s appointments as well as after having a caesarean birth.  Oftentimes, these trips would last from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm. My wrists would be swollen and often the handcuffs would break through the skin, causing bleeding because the cuffs were too tight and any movement rubbed the skin raw. I was in full restraints (leg, wrist and waist chain shackles) in the prison van for every appointment. When I was eight months pregnant and my mother passed away, I was shackled for the entire 6 hours trip.

The only time I was not in restraints was during labor and delivery due to the doctors and nurses who put up such a fuss about not being able to do their jobs with the restraints on me.  The medical staff explained that the restraints would impede their professional performance and that if a prisoner was restrained and anything went wrong, it was not their responsibility. They also denied the Corrections Officer from entering the operating room.

In 1993, while incarcerated, I gave birth to my daughter.  This was before Governor Cuomo signed a bill in 2015 to stop the shackling of pregnant women in New York.

“These common sense reforms strike the right balance that protect the health and dignity of a pregnant inmate, while also addressing public safety concerns,” Governor Cuomo said. “This legislation has made New York’s criminal justice system fairer and stronger and I thank the sponsors and advocates who worked so hard to get it passed.” [1]

The Federal First Step Act (The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act), which prohibits the shackling of pregnant prisoners among other reforms included in it, has been passed into law also. Many formerly incarcerated women have worked diligently with various organizations to lead the struggle and bring awareness to these issues.

Prison Birth Project states, “In women’s prisons, 85% are mothers, and 25% were pregnant on arrest or gave birth in the previous year. The criminal justice system and media demonize people in conflict with the law to justify and prevent outcry against denials of basic human rights, such as adequate pregnancy healthcare, nutrition, and reproductive choice.” [2]

The Pregnant Women in Custody Act, which was introduced by Reps. Karen Bass, Mia Love, and Catherine Clarke, calls to end the practice of using restraints and restrictive housing on female inmates while they are pregnant, in labor, and post-partum.

Bass has stated: “In the United States in 2018, the idea that we would actually shackle a pregnant women to a gurney while she is delivering a baby is really egregious…of course, there is no policy that says a pregnant woman should be shackled to a gurney. There’s a difference between policy and practice, and we know that this is a practice.” [3]

The practice of shackling should be banned and addressed. It causes an undue amount of stress on the mother and child; several people have lost their lives because they were shackled and it is just an inhumane way to treat people. On every trip that I went on I constantly prayed that we wouldn’t get into an accident because I was afraid that we would be killed or that I would trip or fall getting into and out of the prison van and injure my unborn child. I was in constant pain from the handcuffs and had anxiety build up before each visit. Shouldn’t we all think about humanity and ensure basic medical care for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women as well? I also want to say that many other prisoners, male and not pregnant women, have died being transported while shackled in prison vans. It’s just an unsafe practice, period.

The other issues that we can address as far as pregnancy is concerned, is the proper diet a woman and her child should get while incarcerated. Prisons are not required to provide pregnant women with the proper nutrition. Trying to maintain a healthy diet for yourself is a struggle while incarcerated but when your carrying a child it becomes life threatening to you and your unborn baby. Prison food is loaded with starches to fill you up and little nutritional value. Everything is mostly processed and devoid of essential nutrients for a healthy food regimen. The recommended diet for pregnancy includes three or more servings of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and protein every day, in addition to complex carbohydrates. These vital sources of nutrition are absent from most meals served to incarcerated people. [4]

There are many ways that we can support pregnant women in prison and bring awareness of the disparaging practices of how prisons treat all human beings. I would encourage anyone who is reading this to look for organization that are fighting and supporting the rights of anyone who is imprisoned. We all can make a difference in this world and change the paradigm of how we treat one another, free or in our justice system.

Although it seems that things are turning in a different direction please note that we have to stay vigilant on these issues so that they will not fall by the wayside and be forgotten. Contact your local officials and congresswomen and men, voice your opinions to get them involved in this fight for women’s rights. Our work will not be done until all women are free from discrimination, suffering, and pain.

[1] “Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation to Prohibit Shackling of Pregnant Inmates During Transportation”. NY.Gov. 2015



[4] Law, Victoria. “Hungry, Shackled, and Grieving: What Prison is Like for Pregnant People.” The Wire. 2018.