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Shackling of Pregnant Incarcerated Women

At ESTHER’s most recent Mental Health Task Force meeting, we were joined by two women who educated us on an issue that is currently affecting incarcerated pregnant women. 

One of the women who joined us was Felicia Turner-Walton, who is the CEO and Founder of Healing Our Hearts. This is a non-profit based out of Madison that provides support to those that have experienced loss. This organization is committed to providing an understanding of grief that is centered around black and brown communities. 

The issue they covered during our meeting was the injustice of shackling and how it affects incarcerated pregnant women. Prisons have historically been designed by men, for men. Inmate treatment has therefore not taken into account women’s specific needs. Pregnant inmates are thus shackled while receiving medical care because that is how all inmates are treated. Shackling is an inhumane and dangerous practice as it limits the medical care that can be provided due to the restraints and it puts more stress on the pregnant woman or birthing mother.

When I first learned of this practice during our meeting, I had a mixture of feelings. On one hand, I was shocked to learn about this inhumane practice. On the other hand, I was not surprised as prison systems have historically been created to control black and brown communities. These systems of control therefore do not take into account the specific indignities that pregnant women face and the different treatment they need to receive. 


If it’s such an inhumane practice, why is it being used? Correctional facilities are concerned about the safety of health professionals and corrections officers and use restraints on pregnant women to prevent violence or escape attempts. This sounds like a valid argument but the majority of incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders and do not have a history of violence or escape attempts while incarcerated. It is also dangerous for a pregnant woman to escape while receiving medical care since there is extra weight and could cause complications if she is ready to give birth or has just given birth. 

Health professionals make the argument that shackling restricts the medical care that can be given. It is more difficult to test for many pregnancy complications due to the restraints. Shackling is especially dangerous if an emergency Cesarean section needs to be done. Shackling is also uncomfortable for the pregnant woman and does not allow the attending medical staff to make the patient as comfortable as possible. Overall, shackling is a dangerous practice and does not allow pregnant women to receive all the medical care necessary. 

Resistance to this practice has grown in recent years with 2000 being the first year that it was officially banned in any state. Illinois became the first state to pass a law that prohibits state prisons from shackling pregnant women unless there are extraordinary circumstances. Shackling still remains procedure in many states as there are still 28 states without shackling restrictions. Even in states that have restrictions, shackling remains common practice since there is a lack of training for correctional staff and an uneven implementation of shackling bans. 

In 2017, a bill was introduced in Wisconsin to limit the shackling of incarcerated women during labor and childbirth. Senate Bill 393 was authored by Senator Lena Taylor and Representative Lisa Subeck. This bill was introduced due to a number of incarcerated women in Milwaukee County being shackled while in labor. One woman in Milwaukee County was shackled throughout her 21 hours of labor. This bill limits the usage of shackles and other physical restraints on pregnant and postpartum women. Unless there is a legitimate safety or security need for correctional or medical staff, pregnant women may not be restrained while in labor or giving birth. Under this bill, incarcerated women would also have access to pregnancy and STD testing, postpartum services, and other related health services. This bill made it out of a Senate subcommittee but has made it to the Senate floor for a full vote. 

As resistance grows and more people become aware of this dangerous and unethical practice, it is my hope that prisons will take into account the specific needs of incarcerated women and ban the usage of shackling on pregnant women. 




Kayla Nessmann

ESTHER, Communications Coordinator




If you are interested in learning more about Felicia’s work with Healing Our Hearts, here is a link to their website:

If you are interested in learning more about this shackling practice, here are some articles I used for research:


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