April 27, 2020 Articles

Does Shackling Incarcerated Women During Childbirth Violate the Eighth Amendment?

Use of restraints on pregnant women is still a common practice within the U.S. criminal justice system.

By Nakea Barksdale
The Eighth Amendment prevents government officials from acting with deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs.

The Eighth Amendment prevents government officials from acting with deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs.

Use of restraints on pregnant women is still a common practice within the U.S. criminal justice system. Generally, restraints are defined as any physical hold or medical device used to control the movement of a prisoner’s body and limbs, including, but not limited to, shackles, flex cuffs, soft restraints, hard metal handcuffs, a black box, Chubb cuffs, leg irons, belly chains, a security (tether) chain, or a convex shield.

Discussions of the “total” prison population can veil the rapid growth of women’s incarceration rates. By the end of 2019, about 231,000 women and girls were incarcerated within the U.S. criminal justice system, including state prisons, federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, and immigration detention centers. Since 1980, when 26,378 women and girls were incarcerated, this number has increased by over 775 percent. Despite this rapid growth, incarcerated women’s experiences are often difficult to research. For example, it is hard to locate data on how many pregnant women are incarcerated in the U.S. or the outcomes of their pregnancies.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 12,000 pregnant women are incarcerated each year. The manner in which incarcerated pregnant or birthing women are shackled poses risks to the health of a woman and her unborn child that likely violate contemporary standards of decency, and therefore the Eighth Amendment. 

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