Stop Shackling Pregnant Mothers

Women in jail represent the fastest growing prisoner population in the United States, increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. One consequence of this exponential rise is the increase in the number of pregnant women who are confined.

In early 2014, Sandy Robles was one such woman, held at Milwaukee County Jail (MCJ) in Wisconsin. Incarcerated for a total of three months, Sandy was detained when she went into labor. MCJ has a blanket shackling policy for detainees who receive medical treatment, and Sandy was handcuffed to a hospital bed by one arm, and her legs were attached with leg-irons during her multi-day hospitalization for the birth of her daughter. The leg-irons were so short that they prevented Sandy from using stirrups when it came time to push, and her handcuff was so restrictive that it cut into her wrist as she strained to give birth. When her beautiful baby girl was born, Sandy’s ability to hold her child skin-to-skin was obstructed by restraints. An armed deputy was present for her entire hospital stay.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has long since barred the shackling of pregnant inmates in labor, delivery, or postpartum recuperation, and with good reason. In violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments,” pregnant inmates who are shackled face a substantial risk of serious and obvious harm. The hazards of shackling pregnant women are well known, ranging from the inability to stop a bad fall to an enhanced risk of deep vein thrombosis and its life-threatening embolic complications.

In fact, 21 states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting shackling in some way, and in at least 19 other states, shackling is contrary to official department of corrections policy. (Unfortunately, many of these policies contain neither reporting requirements nor consequences for non-adherence.) The American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, the American Public Health Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Midwives, and the World Health Organization have all opposed the use of perinatal restraints.

Though many states have adopted anti-shackling legislation, it is estimated that half of the women who are incarcerated in the U.S. are confined in states that still allow the use of restraints on pregnant women. Between 5-10% of women enter correctional facilities pregnant, which means that approximately 5,000 – 10,000 children are born to incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons. If you take into account women like Sandy who are confined in jails—60% of whom have not been convicted of a crime—the estimated number of babies born into confinement may very well double. In addition, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials decided this spring that they have no problem detaining pregnant women. One thing is clear: more babies are being born into confinement in dangerous conditions.

Though U.S. women account for only 4% of the world’s female population, they account for over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.

Incarceration has traditionally been viewed as a male problem, and prison design and policies continue to reflect that tradition and inflict gender-specific indignities on female prisoners. Though U.S. women account for only 4% of the world’s female population, they account for over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. Women, and women of color in particular, are disproportionately incarcerated in prisons that are not only designed to destroy their dignity but continue to do so in ways that endanger expectant mothers and their children against commonsense and established law.


You can read the federal civil rights lawsuit that lawyer Tess Kleinhaus filed on Sandy’s behalf here. For more information on Loevy & Loevy’s litigation on behalf of women who have given birth in shackles, you can read this 2017 article and blog post on client Melissa Hall.


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