Giving Birth Behind Bars

Labor can be stressful, but for women in prison, it’s a completely different experience. There are 12,000 pregnant women behind bars every year in the U.S. – and The Doctors examine the story of one woman who gave birth while incarcerated, Maria.

“I sold drugs to an undercover cop,” she explains. “When I went into prison I was five months pregnant.” When it came time to deliver her baby, corrections officers cuffed her hands and feet – she had to walk down two flights of steps in shackles.

When Maria arrived at the hospital, one hand was cuffed to the bed frame. “My childbirth was painful,” she recalls. “My hand got swollen because the cuff just got tighter and tighter on my hand.” When Maria’s daughter was born, she was allowed to hold her for two minutes before the baby was taken away. She spent a total of eight hours with her newborn at the hospital.

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Maria was allowed to take care of her baby in the prison’s nursery until one night when she fell asleep holding the child. Then baby Isabel was sent to foster care and Maria returned to the general population. She saw her daughter once a month for the remaining eight months until she was released – she now lives with Isabel and says she’s doing well.

Joining The Doctors are Janice, the founder of Birth Behind Bars; Gail, the director of Coalition for Female Prisoners; and Honorable New York State Supreme Court Justice Judge Richard Buchter.

Janice notes that 23 states forbid the use of shackles on women in labor. In most states, prisoners are allowed to have some contact with their babies, but Janice says bonding between mother and child often doesn’t get enough support.

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In New York State, Gail has been working to end the practice of shackling women, “particularly during labor.” She’s also concerned that pregnant prisoners get adequate food and medical care for a healthy pregnancy. “The worst thing they do is separate a mother and an infant,” she adds. “Punishing the mother is punishing the baby.”

Dermatologist Dr. Sonya Batra wonders how a laboring woman could possibly be a flight risk. Judge Buchter responds that a few years ago, a prisoner being transported in New York State escaped restraints and shot two guards. However, he says, “Once they’re in place I don’t see any reason why they should be shackled.”

ER Physician Dr. Travis Stork notes that a pregnant woman may nevertheless be a violent offender. “How do we strike that balance?" he asks.

Gail responds that she thinks the law that New York State enacted in December 2106 hits the balance perfectly. It allows for an exception if there is a finding that this woman is a risk to herself or others.

“Every baby deserves to be born into this world under optimum circumstances,” concludes Dr. Stork.

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