In the news recently is the debate about whether pregnant, laboring and postpartum women should be shackled or not. Apparently, it isn't humane to shackle a prisoner during the most wondrous experience of her life. It seems that California has made it illegal to shackle women in labor, delivery and during their recovery. Articles abound decrying the vileness of chains and cuffs around a laboring woman's ankles and/or wrists during labor and birth.
When asked how they felt about women being shackled in labor, by far, the average person was horrified that it still occurred. Words such as "abhorrent," "abominable," and "inhumane" were common utterances.
Initially, I felt the same way.
And then I voiced my concern (disgust!) to my partner who was a Deputy Sheriff at the time. How could they?, I implored!
I was filled in with the inside view of why laboring and birthing inmates are shackled. I don't necessarily expect to change your views on the subject, but mine certainly were.
- The Deputy/Officer's job isn't just to keep the prisoner in custody. They also have the responsibility to keep those around her safe. No one knows who might be coming to get the woman... either out of the hospital or to hurt/kill her. Gangs know no limitations and will do anything if someone gets in the way. The Deputy is the sole protection for the birth team. If she (most prisoner escorts are female, but not always if a female isn't available) has to protect the staff of the hospital, too, how can that be accomplished when she is also chasing down a prisoner?
- Women are shackled with 4 foot chains. All the Deputies I spoke with asked the woman over and over where she wanted the cuff... the ankle or the wrist. All also said they have shackled and unshackled and shackled again when mom needed to move or if an IV was placed or mom said it was uncomfortable in that place. Wherever mom felt it was least intrusive was where the Deputy would place them.
- While we are wont to imagine all birthing mothers as Madonnas who love their babies and who deserve some peace and joy during the process, some of these prisoners have done unspeakable things to their other children. From child porn to slavery to killing them, enough of the women have no compunction to harm the baby they are carrying, especially when it comes to escaping, that it should put everyone on high alert.
- While we're on the subject, some pregnant women do anything to get themselves out of jail/prison so they can go to the hospital. Examples of not-uncommon methods include drinking bleach, suffocating themselves into a faint, purposefully falling hard on their stomachs and other things most of us cannot even imagine.
- Hospitals are the number one place of prisoner escapes. While there hasn't been a case of a woman high-tailing it out of Labor & Deliver (yet), if you were a prisoner planning an escape, where might you choose to go?
- The most violent of the violent are usually tagged in some way so everyone knows they are horribly cruel criminals. Besides bands on their wrists, many times they even wear a different color prison/jail uniform, making them stand out even more. These types of prisoners require two Deputies just to take them to sick-call and they are shackled, before leaving their cells, hands to waist to ankles. One of the most severe beatings my partner witnessed was a 5'2" very pregnant woman who wanted to go to sick-call and whose over-seeing 6'4" Deputy decided she was "just so little!" and opened her cell without anyone else there. This Deputy now has scars all over his face reminding him of the little pregnant girl who kicked his ass. It took 5 Deputies to get the woman into restraints and back into her cell.
- An interesting aspect of the articles is that doctors say the women's freedom to move about in labor is hampered. What? Don't most of these women get epidurals, too? Aren't they strapped down by external/internal monitors? BP cuffs? IVs? If women without restraints aren't permitted to move around, why are prisoners?
- Women having abortions are treated the same as women having a baby (or miscarriage).
- No, Deputies cannot "step out" for the birth. Even for cesareans, they have a duty to protect everyone. One Deputy reminded me that when they go in for cesareans, they cut a hole in the paper gown so they are able to get to their guns if something should happen. It might seem absurd to think of a woman hopping off the table during a cesarean, but desperate women do desperate things - and one never knows who might be lurking right outside the door to take her away as surgery begins or ends. (I'm sure this sounds so "what-if" - but it is that kind of thinking that keeps us safe from situations most of us might never consider.)
- None of this is to say that women are not to be treated without dignity and kindness, but it is to say we need to remember just why the woman is shackled on the way to and from the hospital - she is a threat to others, her baby included.
- The most important part of all of this is that simply by being a prisoner, one gives up the right to many, many things we take for granted. They no longer pee in private, shower in private, eat in private, walk without restraints outside of the cell area, make decisions about medications, telephone calls and even choice of reading material (daily newspapers are edited). If one wants to birth in peace and privacy, perhaps that might be an impetus for not stealing for a fix. It's the way our society is set up. You're in jail? You lose a whole bundle of rights.
Including birthing unshackled.