Will Ohio stop shackling pregnant women prisoners?

Yesterday, October 9, 2019, Ohio’s Statehouse News Bureau reported, “The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved changes to a bill, SB18, that would ban prison guards from shackling pregnant inmates. The amended legislation would eliminate the practice for an entire pregnancy instead of just the third trimester, which was the original proposal.” The primary sponsors of this bill are Nickie Antonio, Democrat; and Peggy Lehner, Republican. Speaking of shackling pregnant women prisoners, Nickie Antonio noted, “I think it’s harsh. It really comes up against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment when a woman’s pregnant to do that. To move her from place to place … All of the practice and policies in the department of corrections, originated for male prisoners. There was not consideration of women in jail, in prison.” 

Last year, when she was still a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, Nickie Antonio sponsored a similar bill. That bill was co-sponsored by eight Democrats. No Republicans supported the bill, and, after one hearing, it died … or, better, was killed. Elections matter. Thus far, in the Ohio Senate, no one has testified against the proposal. When Nickie Antonio sponsored the new bill in the Senate, she explained that when she first heard of the practice from Maureen Sweeney, a nurse in Ohio, she thought, “It’s barbaric, it’s humiliating for the woman.”

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice in Ohio? “No one tracks how many pregnant inmates are shackled in Ohio so it’s impossible to know how common the practice is. Women who were restrained often don’t want to talk about the experience. But more and more women are entering Ohio’s jails and prisons – an increase driven by drug-related offenses.” No one knows because those in charge don’t care.

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice across the United States? Although the United States is home to 4% of the world’s female population, it houses over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women (this does not include women in immigrant detention centers). Women’s incarceration in the United States is at an all-time high. Incarcerated women are disproportionately located in local jails, and a large proportion are awaiting trial. For pregnant women, this means those who have not been convicted of anything are thrown into facilities where the staffs are untrained and unprepared to make any kind of informed decisions concerning pregnancy or childbirth. The women may be formally innocent until proven guilty, but as pregnant women they have been condemned.

For pregnant women behind bars, the State of Condemnation is a State of Abandonment. As noted by Carolyn Sufrin, the lead author of Pregnancy Outcomes in US Prisons, 2016–2017a groundbreaking study published earlier this year, “There are barely any data, aside from a 2004 survey, on prison pregnancy rates. The only publicly available statistics about prison births are from a 1999 report. And there is no systematic information, not even outdated data, about miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, maternal deaths or other pregnancy outcomes in prison. This is a profound omission. Women who don’t count don’t get counted. And women who don’t get counted don’t count. This lack of statistics shows just how little we care for incarcerated pregnant people.”

How usual is the cruel and humiliating practice of shackling pregnant women across the United States? On one hand, who cares? No one in charge. On the other hand, little by little, more and more states, like Ohio, are moving forward. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACOG, “32 states currently restrict the use of restraints for limited duration, but few states broadly restrict the practice throughout pregnancy and postpartum.” Thirteen states “broadly restrict restraints throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum, including transport to a medical facility”: California, Connecticut, Nebraska, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. That list was published in June 2019. Since then, Georgia passed the Georgia Dignity Act, which bans the shackling of pregnant and postpartum women. Formerly incarcerated women, led by Pamela Winn, a formerly incarcerated woman who had experienced the horror of being shackled in childbirth, pushed and testified, until the legislature’s walls came tumbling down.

Across the United States, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their supporters reject the logic of “women are America’s fast-growing segment of prisoners”, a logic that says that the cruelty and horror visited upon their bodies and selves is merely a consequence of the gendered mathematics of the American decades long experiment in mass incarceration. They say that dignity for women is justice for women; it is time to let dignity and justice roll down like waters, across the land. Prison is bad for pregnant women. Shackling pregnant women, sending pregnant women and post-partum women into solitary are atrocities. Meanwhile, in Ohio, “the bill could get a vote on the Senate floor as early as this month.”

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: Colorlines / Stokely Baksh)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.