The Shocking State of Incarcerated Pregnant Women in the United States
The United States is home to 5% of the world’s women and 33% of incarcerated women. A higher proportion, both per capita and in absolute terms, than anywhere else in the world. Although this only accounts for 7% of all prisoners in the United States, the statistics do not reflect the unique and horrific circumstances that many incarcerated women faced before being sentenced.
These women are girls who were victims when they were little, were ignored in precarious schools, and unprotected by social services. Girls who dropped out of high school, self-medicated with alcohol or illegal drugs, then made mistakes that threw them into an industrial-scale prison system.
The reality about these women’s difficulties explodes in our faces in a new report published a few days ago by the Vera Institute of Justice, Safety and Justice Challenge. It says women make up the fastest-growing demographic in US prisons. It also says that this situation is one that aggravates the social disadvantages they face.
The United States does a disservice to the female prisoners’ population by locking them up without giving them the first chance at life, much less a second.
A shocking 32% of incarcerated women in New York were raped before being arrested. In a New York prison, 82% of women suffered serious psychological or sexual abuse when they were young, and 75% experienced physical violence by their partners during adulthood.
Although about 18% of New York residents are black, one study shows that black women make up 42.6% of female inmates; many of them come from economically depressed neighborhoods where there are inadequate schools and little support for troubled girls who have suffered abuse.
In 2018, the First Step Act passed prohibiting shackling of pregnant women in federal custody; however, this federal law does not protect women serving sentences in state prisons and county jails. According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, 85% of female prisoners in the United States serve sentences in this type of penitentiary. This means that thousands of pregnant inmates are left at the mercy of the discretion of the guards who guard them, who decide how to control each of their movements, as well as those of the children they carry.
Currently, 23 states in the country have no laws prohibiting the chaining of pregnant inmates, even though in 2010, the UN stated that “ restraint instruments will never be used … during labor, birth and immediately after birth. “
“We have dehumanized this group of women to such an extent that we don’t realize that chaining them when they are pregnant is outrageous, cruel and completely unnecessary,” says Lorie Goshin, associate professor at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing in New York and principal investigator of a recent study on the treatment of incarcerated women who are pregnant.
Furthermore, on many occasions, prison staff do not know what the rights of inmates are. To address this situation, some non-profit organizations distribute pamphlets to inmates and advocacy groups on laws that prohibit handcuffs.
Also, each state interprets the ban on handcuffs differently. Like Maryland and New York, some do not allow the use of handcuffs immediately before and after childbirth, although there are exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Other states, such as Ohio, allow pregnant women to be handcuffed in front of their bodies, rather than behind, as the latter is believed to affect balance.
Then there is the distinction between chaining during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Every state law is nuanced. Rhode Island is the only state that has, since 2017, what is called a “private right of action,” an enforcement mechanism that allows illegally chained women to seek compensation.
However, one element remains in all cases: the severe psychological trauma inflicted by being chained. “Women who are handcuffed during childbirth report experiencing deep anxiety, depression, distress, and trauma,” states the American Psychological Association in a 2017 report.
The fact that the federal government does not require prisons or jails to collect information about women prisoners’ pregnancy and childbirth further complicates the situation. A bill presented in September 2018 sought to require this type of data to be collected. However, the project was unsuccessful.
74% of those interviewed in the 2019 study had guarded pregnant women or those who had just given birth. In 61% of the cases in which they were handcuffed, the reason given was not because the prisoners represented a risk to others, or because of the risk of escape, but simply because “there was a rule or protocol” that supported the use of chains.
Pamela Winn’s constant endeavor
Over the subject of pregnant incarcerated women, the activist to achieve major limelight remains Pamela Winn from Atlanta, Georgia. A former inmate herself, Winn suffered from a tragic miscarriage during her 78-month federal prison sentence. Ever since, Winn has emerged as a noteworthy activist for the rights, protection, welfare, and dignity of pregnant incarcerated women in the country.
Her defining role and leadership in the incorporation of anti-shackling legislation are well worth notice. She serves as National Advisory Council of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and is a celebrated board member of Motherhood Beyond Bars. Pamela also serves on the Women’s Advisory Team with Human Impact Partners, which is chaired by formerly incarcerated women and public health experts who study the social factors of criminalization.
She also works with women who have sustained the experience of shackling during pregnancies, advocates motivated to pass anti-shackling laws in their states, and in collaboration with other organizations. With her network and support, Pamela’s managed to lead the conversation for the Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Pregnant People.