Even today, with modern medicine and new technology, pregnancy can be risky. For those who are in jail or prison, the dangers are increased. Pregnant women who are incarcerated are placed in a stressful environment where communicable diseases can spread rapidly. Medical treatment runs from good to substandard, depending on the prison or jail. It is the luck of the draw, if anything about incarceration can be considered “lucky.”
Anyone who has been in labor knows how excruciating the pain can be. Writhing in agony is not uncommon. Imagine being in labor, in prison. Now imagine being shackled as you are transported to a medical facility while you are in labor, and even while you are delivering your child. Not only can shackling inhibit a woman from participating during the crucial process of pushing during birth, but it can cause delays in emergency treatment, causing serious complications to mothers and/or child.
Shacking while in labor has been outlawed in many states because of that very risk to mother and baby, and there is a move to have it banned in all 50 states. Sometimes even a law against shackling while in labor, delivery or postpartum isn’t enough. Such is the case in New York state where the ban against shackling became a law in 2009. However, the practice of shackling a pregnant women is still going on.
Several studies have shown the risk of an incarcerated woman in labor trying to escape while being transported or in the delivery room is negligible. So why is it still happening? And why are pregnant and sick women being held in solitary confinement in New York, when numerous health providers believe that puts the women in danger? Freelance journalist Victoria sought the answers.
The following was published in Solitary Watch on February 16, 2015. It is republished here with permission from the author.
Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Shackling While Pregnant or Sick
By Victoria Law
What does solitary confinement have to do with reproductive justice? Quite a lot, says a new report about reproductive health care in New York’s women’s prisons. The Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice policy and advocacy organization, released Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons. The report is a culmination of the organization’s five-year study of the state’s women’s prisons, including in-person interviews with over 950 incarcerated women and 1,500 mailed-in surveys.
New York State incarcerates nearly 4,000 women each year. On any given day, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Service (DOCCS) imprisons 2,300 women, for which it is responsible for providing health care, including reproductive health care. But that care is “woefully substandard,” charges the report. The Correctional Association found that DOCCS systemically offered substandard medical treatment, inadequate access to gynecological care, poor conditions for pregnant women, and insufficient supplies of feminine hygiene products and toilet paper. In addition, pregnant women are routinely shackled during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery, in violation of the state’s 2009 law.
Solitary confinement exacerbates these problems. Approximately 1,600 people are placed in solitary confinement in New York’s women’s prisons each year. On any given day, 100 women are held in solitary confinement. Until recently, no exceptions were made for pregnant women. But even women who are not pregnant have found that solitary confinement further obstructs their ability to access reproductive health care. “Solitary is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it impedes access to critical OB care and prevents women from getting the regular exercise and movement that are vital for a healthy pregnancy,” the report states. In addition, many pregnant women already experience stress and depression, feelings intensified by isolation. For pregnant women, the additional stress of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day lowers their ability to fight infection and increases the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage, and low birth weight in babies.