Secure birth

Thursday, April 22nd, 2004

“My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn’t get my legs apart.”

Behind the walls of the nation’s fear infrastructure, we routinely violate the Eighth Amendment. We do it in every state of the union except two, and those two only recently curtailed the practice. I refer to the “security measure” of chaining incarcerated pregnant women to their beds, sometimes by both wrist and ankle, during labor and delivery.

Say what?

If you are a mom, if you are a woman, you can imagine the nightmare of having your freedom restricted during eight, 10, 12 or more hours of labor: being unable to stand up, walk around, drop to your hands and knees or even turn over, in an environment utterly devoid of emotional support.

“A gentle birth,” writes Barbara Harper, R.N., for The Gentle Birth Alternatives Web site, “takes place when a woman is supported by the people she chooses to be with her during this most intimate time. She needs to be loved and nurtured by those around her.”

Yeah, tell it to the judge. The former inmate quoted above, given the pseudonym Maria Jones in a 1998 Amnesty International report on the issue, describes her ordeal at Chicago’s Cook County Jail:

“I was in labor for almost 12 hours. I asked the officer to disconnect the leg iron from the bed when I needed to use the bathroom, but the officer made me use the bedpan instead. I was not permitted to move around to help the labor along. …

“(When I felt the baby come) the doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn’t open my legs.”

Read the report. It goes on and on. Jones is only one of a number of women who give excruciating testimony of what is standard procedure in most of America’s prisons. Almost all of them were nonviolent offenders, usually convicted on drug charges.

“With the handcuffs on, I could not even hold my stomach to get some comfort from the pain,” said Warnice Robinson, who had been arrested, according to the report, for shoplifting. “Even animals would not be shackled during labor, a household dog or a cow on a farm.”

When I read the other day that Arkansas’s Department of Corrections had just changed its policy on this matter, I assumed the state was in 50th place, finally getting rid of a barbaric penal relic that other states had outlawed in the 1890s. Little did I realize it is, in fact, a pioneer in the halfway humane treatment of female prisoners. It joined Illinois — a state featured prominently in the Amnesty report — which banned shackled births shortly after the report was made public.

“Security trumps all,” said Joanne Archibald of CLAIM (Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers), the organization instrumental in getting Illinois to pass anti- shackling legislation, explaining why such cruel and unusual punishment isn’t considered unconstitutional.

Prison officials, she said, justify it on the grounds that “women have faked labor in order to escape.” Oh, right. And even in Illinois, “As soon as she delivers, they slap those shackles back on.”

No bonding. No nurturing at the breast. The traumatized infant is whisked off to some antiseptic holding pen to lie alone in its cold new world. This isn’t rational. It’s not even sane. And it definitely violates the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Beyond the intense torture inflicted on the mother, what in God’s name have we just done to the child?

“During a natural gentle birth,” writes Harper, “a woman feels and senses the power of the birth and uses this energy to transform every part of her own being. A gentle birth is not rushed. The baby emerges at its own pace and in its own time, received into the hands of those who love and recognize it for the divine gift that it is.”

In contrast, children born in prison are born in hell. Their spiritual scars are the state’s gift to the future.