Giving birth in jail happens more than you think, and when you hear the stories of moms who’ve been there—women whose biological rights and needs were callously ignored—it’s hard not to be horrified.
According to The Sentencing Project, “1 out of every 25 women in state prisons is pregnant and 1 out of every 33 women in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted to prison.” All but 18 states still allow pregnant prisoners to be shackled before, during, and after birth despite evidence from the medical community that this practice is unethical and opposed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Courtney Fortin, of Maine, spent the first six months of her pregnancy behind bars, after being arrested for possession of painkillers. She was chained throughout every medical appointment—and was even refused prenatal vitamins. As Elle has reported:
“During the appointments, she had zero discretion, privacy, or confidentiality. There was always a male correction officer from York County Jail, where she was an inmate at the time, in the examination room, and she was handcuffed and chained throughout every visit.”
Courtney says she sat shackled in the back of a van. When she arrived at the doctor’s office, she asked the correction officers to remove her handcuffs and leg shackles (which were cutting off circulation in her swollen ankles) so she’d be less likely to trip and fall as she lowered herself out of the van. Her balance was compromised, she explained, and she’d be unable to catch herself with her chained hands. Their only response: That’s how we do things here . . .
Her story, sadly, is hardly unusual.
Cosmopolitan recently reported that in 2016 in Milwaukee County Jail, four people have died, including a newborn who was born in a jail cell.
In 2015, Sheriff David Clarke, the county’s former sheriff, insisted that laboring women “be shackled or tied somehow to that bed.” This outrageous cruelty led 29-year-old Melissa Hall give birth in chains, which can be life-threatening.
During her labor, she was chained completely, despite the fact that her doctors pleaded with her security guards to take them off (and really, where was she going, considering a baby was coming out of her?). The situation was relayed in Cosmopolitan:
“They shackled her ankles together and put her in handcuffs. Then they wrapped a chain around her belly and connected the handcuffs. (During labor and delivery, she says, the belly chain was removed; one ankle and one wrist were chained to the bed.)
‘I didn’t think they were going to chain me to go to a hospital, to go have a baby,’ Hall says. She points to her vagina. ‘There’s going to be a head right there. Where am I going to run to?’
At the hospital, Hall’s doctor repeatedly asked for the chains to be removed, she tells me. But the gunners wouldn’t relent.”
Four years ago, Hall was charged with misdemeanor battery, criminal damage to property, bail jumping, and unlawful use of a phone during a dispute with her partner and his family. While she sentenced to a year in a jail (of which she served six months).
Studies have shown that shackling increases the risk of blood clots, falling, limits the mobility needed for safe pregnancy and delivery, increases the risk of falling, and causes severe discomfort.
For her part, Hall survived the ordeal, but summed up her traumatic birth experience like this: “It’s a memory that I have to keep forever, but it’s a memory I don’t want to tell my son.”