Pregnant Women in U.S. Prisons

Prisoners in the United States have their basic human rights violated each day. They are treated in completely inhumane and degrading ways.  Regardless of whether or not they are criminals, their human rights need to be recognized and respected.  Instead, they are ignored. I spent the weekend at the CLPP conference and attended numerous workshops on the subject.  The United States has the highest rate per capita of incarcerated people in the world and over half of prisoners are non-violent offenders; currently, there are approximately 2.3 million people serving time in American prisons.  When looking at the female prison population, one notices that the majority are poor, women of color convicted for drug-related offenses.  They are not violent offenders nor do they pose a threat to society, which leads me to believe that the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders has more to do with the government’s personal agenda than protecting the American people.

Over the course of this weekend, I realized how accurate my assessment had been.  For example, if you are arrested in New Orleans for prostitution, you are arrested and ultimately required to register as a sex offender.  Then, this label will be written on your driver’s license and other forms of state identification. When you get back on the street, you won’t be able to find a job or good housing because you are considered a sex offender.  In order to continue making any money, you have to go back onto the street and risk getting caught again by law enforcement.  This perpetuates a cycle of imprisonment, poverty, and endless struggle.  In this post, I want to focus specifically on the way that the criminal justice system treats pregnant women while they are incarcerated.

This weekend, one of the speakers was from the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union.  She works specifically with the Reproductive Freedom Project and individuals whose reproductive rights have been violated.  She spoke about the way that pregnant women are treated in prison and how their rights are often ignored.  Their is a false belief that prisoners no longer have access to their constitutional rights because they are incarcerated but this is not true.  Because this idea is so widespread, human rights violations in the prison system are often seen as justified.  Certain laws that are in place, such as the Prison Reform Litigation Act, make it harder for prisoners to challenge those that violate their rights in prison.  According to this law, the prisoner needs to bring their claim before a prison official before filing a lawsuit and must have some sort of physical injury to support their claim.  Certain government officials have been pushing for reform, but the law remains the same.  This has especially negative affects on pregnant women in prison whose rights are often violated in a way that cannot be proven as a wrongdoing of prison officials.

“In Estelle, the Supreme Court held that under the Eight Amendment, the state is required ‘to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration’… [and] that ‘deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,’ proscribed by the Eight Amendment” (Kenny 27).  Later trials went on to specify that abortion was a medical need that could not be violated.  However, women in prison are often denied this right; sometimes they are refused services directly and other times they are presented with many barriers that prevent them from getting to an abortion clinic (ex. transportation).  The reasoning behind this is that the federal law often does not match specific state laws (Kenny 28).  To learn more about access to abortion in prison, read this article.

Another violation of human rights is the shackling of pregnant inmates.  Because it is common policy to shackle prisoners, no exceptions are made for pregnant women.  This puts their health at risk and also violates international law.  The United Nations declared that shackling prisoners is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, which therefore also violates the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“‘Physician Dr. Patricia Garcia notes that’ women in labor need to be mobile so that they can assume various positions as needed and so they can quickly be moved to an operating room. Having the woman in shackles compromises the ability to manipulate her legs into the proper position for treatment. The mother and baby’s health could be compromised if there were complications during delivery such as hemorrhage or decrease in fetal heart beat. ‘If there were a need for a C Section, the mother needs to be moved to an operating room immediately and a delay of even five minutes could result in permanent brain damage for the baby. …’ Shackling pregnant women during transport is also dangerous given the possibility that the mother may fall and injure herself and the fetus.”

As this points out, there are numerous reasons why pregnant women should not be shackled while pregnant or during labor.  Unless these prisoners are posing a threat to themselves or others, there is no reason why they would need to be treated like this.  Thanks to the work of the Reproductive Freedom Project, more states are changing their laws and recognizing that the shackling of pregnant inmates is a violation of their constitutional rights.  Now, eight state laws have made this distinction, compared to three states approximately five years ago.  Although progress is being made, it astonishes me that this is even an issue.  Not only are there serious health consequence associated with this form of abuse, but there is no logical justification for it.  I feel that this is done in order to establish control and reinforce the idea of prisoner inferiority.  This in no way protect the pregnant women or the other people in the prison, therefore the practice needs to be eradicated completely.  To learn more about shackling pregnant prisoners, click here.

Overall, there are numerous problems within the prison system that need to be addressed.  I am constantly bewildered when I hear about the prevalence of human rights violations in our country and see them being ignored by the government.  As I have discussed, the government acts according to their priorities.  There would be no direct benefit to reforming the prison system; instead, it would negatively affect the individuals who own and work in the country’s prisons.  I think it is crucial that prisoners’ rights are recognized and respected, especially if they have special circumstances (ex. if they are pregnant).  Next week, I will continue to write about American prisons and how they violate human rights.  I think this is an interesting parallel to the book we are currently reading for class, especially because the settings and prisoners are so different.

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