Modern Day Chain Gangs: Shackling Pregnant Mothers in Georgia Prisons and Jails

Tonya Williams

“I cannot imagine a place where one might stand and have a clearer view of concentrated disadvantage based on race, class, and gender inequality in the country then from inside the walls of women’s prisons.”  Beth E. Richie

“I cannot imagine a place where one might stand and have a clearer view of concentrated disadvantage based on race, class, and gender inequality in the country then from inside the walls of women’s prisons.”  – Beth E. Richie

When Gwen got locked up for a minor non-violent drug offense, she didn’t know she was pregnant. Just days into her confinement, she began to experience cramping, severe abdominal pains and bleeding. She immediately tried to alert the guards about her condition.  After what seemed like hours of pleading and begging for medical assistance, an officer finally came to take Gwen to the infirmary.  She was eventually rushed to the hospital. By the end of her brief stint in a Fulton County jail, she would discover she was pregnant, miscarry, and as a final illustration of neglect and callous disregard, she was shackled by the wrists and ankles as the physician removed the remains of her stillborn fetus from her womb.

While Gwen’s story is one of the most egregious stories of state-condoned reproductive oppression that I have documented, incarcerated pregnant women across the state of Georgia have been and continue to be subjected to shackling by the wrists, ankles or around the belly on their way to the hospital, during labor and delivery and in recovery. Dehumanized, shamed by the visible signs of their bondage, and oftentimes unable to receive the holistic and essential pre- and postnatal care and nutrition needed, pregnant women in Georgia must confront a painful reality. They have become a part of the modern day chain gang.

Georgia is one of more than forty states that continue to permit the use of restraints on incarcerated pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery.  According to a study of state prison policies and laws around the country undertaken by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, “it seems safe to assume that prisons” in Georgia “are engaging in shackling as a matter of routine.”

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Over the last few years, several states have prohibited the practice concluding that shackling incarcerated pregnant women during the birthing process is not only unnecessary, but unduly subjects women to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. More recently, the national anti-shackling movement has witnessed a string of victories condemning the practice as activists on the state level have successfully won bans in West Virginia and Washington state and are on the verge of victory in Pennsylvania. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons outlawed the practice in federal prisons after considerable lobbying from a broad range of health care professionals, prison advocacy, civil liberties, and women’s rights groups.  A few months ago, the 8th District Court of Appeals, in Nelson v. Norris held that “the U.S. Constitution protects pregnant women in prison from the unnecessary and unsafe practice of shackling during labor and childbirth.” Moreover, the practice of shackling incarcerated women during labor, delivery and recovery violates international standards and norms. Clearly, the time to end this practice in the United States is upon us. While, the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women has sounded a clarion call, mobilizing reproductive justice groups around the country, we understand that the use of restraints on pregnant women is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our prisons around the provision of medical care and reproductive health of female inmates.

For more than two years, SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW has engaged in an extensive participatory research and documentation effort, with community and formerly incarcerated women to bring awareness around the conditions pregnant, incarcerated women are subjected to during the laboring and birthing processes. Most pregnant incarcerated women, imprisoned for non-violent crimes relating to poverty and/or substance abuse, pose no physical threat to health care professionals, themselves, correctional officers or society

In Georgia, two correctional officers accompany the shackled pregnant woman and one is always in close proximity to her except under rare circumstances.  From our understanding, whether restraints are used, under what circumstances and for how long, largely depends on the guard not policy or law. While, prison officials justify the use of restraints as a security precaution, nurses that provide essential care and spend the most time with the women, will tell you, no woman has ever tried to escape nor could she if she wanted to. Labor is called labor for a reason.  Furthermore, they say, it’s just cruel.

As a reproductive justice organization, our work is rooted in the belief that individuals and communities should have the resources and power to make sustainable and libratory decisions about their fertility, bodies, genders, sexualities, families and lives. Thus, the rapid expansion of the prison system, disappearing tens of thousands of predominately low-income women of color, especially black women, is a reproductive justice issue. Birthing while incarcerated is a reproductive justice issue.  Shackling of incarcerated pregnant women is a reproductive justice issue. Prisons and jails, by far, are some of the most invisible and unaccountable sites of reproductive oppression where justice is hardly won or realized.  As we celebrate Mothers Day, let us not forget those women rendered invisible and silenced by the walls, intersecting systems of oppression, social stigma, shame and physical restraints that define their lives in so many ways. 

For more information about our efforts toward advancing reproductive justice in Georgia, please visit us at:

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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