This is America, reputed to be the “land of the free and home of the brave.” Yet in 2006, 230 years after this nation’s birth, some women are still being kept in chains — literally and legally. Prisons in 23 states and all federal prisons operate under rules specifically calling for shackling pregnant prisoners while those women are in labor and about to give birth. In Rhode Island, ankle shackles are kept on through labor and until the actual delivery, after which the mother is again shackled ankle-to-stretcher.
The New York Times shed light on this practice with a recent front-page story. Supporters of this barbarism remind skeptics that though these women may be in the throes of labor and delivery, they are, nonetheless, convicted felons. So we are supposed to believe that trained prison guards cannot control a woman on a delivery table as she writhes in pain to bring forth a newborn child, unless that woman’s legs are chained to the stretcher.
Just writing these words brings a shudder, and rightfully. What can these captors have in mind?
It is hard to imagine an analogous situation that would similarly degrade and damage male patients — unless the men were forced to have their thighs bound together while they defecated. Disgusting? You bet — but not nearly as disgusting as the concept of chaining a delivering mother’s legs to her bed while the head of her infant crests on a delivery table.
Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, reported on its Web site about its findings in one US hospital:
“Amnesty International visited Madera County [CA] Hospital where prisoner-patients are held in a specially designated secure ward. Despite the presence of four armed guards in the ward, each inmate was chained to the bed by her ankle. One of the prisoners showed Amnesty International her shackle which was a chain about 18" long. She could lie on her side but she could not roll over. Prison officials explained that the shackle is removed only if a doctor informs them that it is interfering with medical treatment or is injurious to a woman’s health.
“Staff reported that even a terminally ill or dying woman would remain in shackles unless there was a medical reason for removing the restraint. Dying itself does not present a medical reason, apparently. Pregnant women are unshackled once a doctor makes a diagnosis that they are in labor, and they are shackled again after the birth and immediate recovery period. It is hard to see how seriously ill women, or women about to give birth (or who have just given birth) would present a security risk requiring mechanical restraint, especially in a locked ward closely supervised by armed guards.”
Americans who believe that human rights violations of such a savage nature occur only in the far corners of the Third World need look no farther than the country now so focused on “bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq.”