“I was petrified, and I was petrified because I didn’t know what to expect. There was no one there to inform me on how this goes and what to expect,” says Miyoshi Benton of her experience being shackled while pregnant. "It was just kind of like 'learn as you go' and anticipate things. I did not receive adequate medical treatment, not once throughout my whole pregnancy." The experience left a deep mark on her. "You’re feeling a lot of different emotions and I think the most [prominent] one of it all is the hopelessness."
Benton now works for the Women & Justice Project, advocating for women who are in prison and facing situations similar to her own.
“I knew firsthand what my experience was around shackling and I knew I wanted to focus more on issues that I could speak directly to,” she tells Romper.
Reflecting on the traumatic experience, Benton says, “The collateral damage of it all is everlasting.”
One of the women Benton has fought for is Crystal Roldan, a mother to three teenagers and a now-3-year-old daughter. Roldan spent two years in prison — one year and five months at Bedford Hill, and the remaining time at Albany County — and didn’t find out until her arrest that was she expecting her fourth child.
“[I was] completely alone through that process,” Roldan says, “When they told me I was pregnant, I was completely shocked because my youngest child at the time was 12, so I literally was not planning on having anymore children, and with the lifestyle that I led, I didn’t think it was a good idea to have any more children.”
From other incarcerated women, Roldan had heard that there was a nursery in Bedford Hill where she and her daughter could go after she gave birth. Yet none of the officers or officials would provide any information on the matter. All she knew was “that there was a chance — a small chance, but a chance — that I might get [to] the nursery.”
“I just wanted the chance of keeping my child. I didn’t want to be separated from her,” she says.
And so, Roldan took the first plea that came to her and, at six months, was sent to Bedford Hill. She then applied for the nursery and was, thankfully, accepted at around seven-and-a-half months pregnant. But still, that didn’t halt the inhumane way she was treated.
“I was a wreck. From the time that I got to Bedford to a month after I had my daughter, I went on an outside trip every single day [because of a medical reason]...and that’s where I experienced my shackling,” she recalls. “When I was nine months pregnant and going on my outside trips, I had two officers [with me] who weren’t really trained on taking trips. They put me in leg irons to go to this clinic in Mount Vernon and when we got there the elevator wasn’t working. Now I’m huge and pregnant and there is about a foot and a half drop out of the van, so if you step out of the van and your legs are shackled together, it’s extremely hard to take your right foot and step it on the ground while having your left foot inside the van.”
She adds, “I’d have to take steps with these leg irons up all these flights of stairs while I was pregnant and the officers didn’t care whether I fell or not. They had no concern whatsoever.”
Soon enough, Roldan was in labor and about to give birth. Her daughter was a breech baby, however, so a c-section had to be performed. Roldan recalls being handcuffed on the way to the hospital which, under a 2009 anti-shackling law put in place in New York State, is illegal. Also illegal: the fact that Roldan was shackled on the way back to the prison only three days after giving birth.
“So I didn’t know that when you’re on the way to have your child you’re not supposed to be handcuffed; I didn’t know that. They really try to make sure that we’re not educated at all on what the law is or what they’re supposed to do. I was handcuffed on the way to the hospital, I was shackled on the way back from having my daughter.”
She adds, “It was so hard… I literally left the hospital with leg irons and a waist chain. They shackled me while my daughter was in the room with me and it was already hard that I was leaving her, so on top of being shackled it was almost unbearable.”
Following an incident surrounding two incarcerated women, North Carolina officials announced in late March that shackling during labor would no longer be legal throughout state prisons. The progressive policy change was a victory for activist groups, such as SisterSong and MomsRising, who have been pressuring officials to outlaw this obscene treatment of expecting mothers.
“This has been an issue, ongoing. And North Carolina was one of those places where it was kind of vague, like what is the practice? What is the policy?” Monifa Bandele, vice president of MomsRising, tells Romper. “There’s a whole host of things that can be improved, but it’s really a huge victory that the state has put in place some clear guidelines around the shackling of women who are in active labor.”
Women are the fastest-growing correctional population, per data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice, which shows a 14-fold increase in female inmates between 1970 and 2014. They are, by and large, imprisoned for low-level non-violent crimes.
“Women often become involved with the justice system as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles,” states a report by the Vera Institute. Their time in the correctional system ultimately creates “greater parental stress and financial instability,” concludes the report. That is, a lack of social support drives women into the system, and, rather than being “reformed,” they find themselves more poorly equipped to look after their children once they are released.
Shackling during labor is naturally one of the most sympathetic reform issues. Though it is outlawed in New York, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York Dori Lewis points out in an email conversation with Romper that shackling is still legal for other inmates. “To me the fight against shackling should not be limited to ending their use on pregnant women. Shackling seriously ill persons is just plain wrong.”
Shackling, which includes the use of much more than just handcuffs, is an issue facing prisons all around the country. North Carolina’s policy change requires that wrist restraints be removed once the expecting mother has gone into labor, as and outlawed the use of leg or waist restraints, according to The Guardian.
The policy, however, allows for officers to use wrist restraints while transporting the mother to the hospital, a measure that The News & Observer reports must be done in such a way that allows the mother to “protect herself or the fetus if she were to fall.”
Bandele, along with other activists in the state, believes that shackling is altogether unnecessary.
“There are other ways to make sure a person is safe. Shackling is not seat belts. We feel that there is no evidence; no one can point to a single case where a pregnant woman was a threat to either the other people around her or, like, escaping when 40 weeks pregnant,” she says.
Bandele says that the policy change resulted from increased efforts and push from local activists after the incident in North Carolina. She explains that two unnamed, incarcerated women were shackled to their beds in a North Carolina hospital while giving birth. Although the doctor and nurses requested that the shackles be removed, officers refused to do so. Medical staff then alerted SisterSong, an Atlanta-based activist group aimed at fighting for reproductive justice of women of color, who reached out to others in the area. The policy changed was announced soon after.
“We really want to push for healthier practices because those of us who are moms… can’t even imagine being handcuffed and shackled. It's barbaric and it doesn't allow you to do your part in the labor and delivery of your child,” Bandele says.
Shackling is an issue that dates way back. As of now, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana, Georgia, and South Carolina are the only states to have no legislation against the inhumane practice.
Scott R. Frakes, Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, explains that current policies have been created to balance risk.
“Every action we take in our business is connected to risk assessment, and ensuring that our outcomes speak to public safety and meeting the needs of the individual. While any pregnant, incarcerated woman does present some risk to others we can use additional resources to maintain public safety," he says. "She is also the mother of a child, and that child is not incarcerated for a crime." Frakes is able to detail the treatment afforded pregnant women: "Women in their first trimester may be restrained in handcuffs and/or leg irons according to their custody level. Women in their second trimester may be restrained in handcuffs according to their custody level (no leg irons). Women in their third trimester may not be restrained. This applies to in prison and in a community hospital.”
“There may not be a law about shackling pregnant women or women in labor, but there is a very clear policy about shackling during pregnancy and labor," says Kaitlin Felsted, who works for the Utah Department of Corrections. "Women in the first trimester are cuffed in front, second trimester cuffed in front no leg shackles, and third trimester and during labor no restraints.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia, there is an exception to the DOC ban on restraints during childbirth for cases where "the offender actively tries to escape from custody during labor or if she attempts to hurt herself or her child,” says Joan Heath, a representative of the Georgia Department of Corrections.
The Departments of Corrections in Kansas, Indiana, and South Carolina did not respond for comment.
Although other states do have laws in place, they vary greatly and are often not followed. Among the many complications that arise from shackling are bruising, cuts, preventing the progression of labor, and trauma.
Bandele adds, “And if you have a jolt of pain and you cringe up your body or you try to sit up and your shackled, you may damage parts of your body.”
Bandele is a supporter of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act that was proposed by Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren last summer.
“One of the pieces of that bill talks about not shackling pregnant women who are in prison, and so we’re supporting that and that would have an impact on federal prisons. However, it is actually the state [rather than the federal government] that has to put in laws or practices to prevent this from happening,” Bandele says.
One state that has completely outlawed the shackling of incarcerated woman: New York.
In December of 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that completely forbids prison officers and officials from shackling pregnant women during any point throughout their pregnancy. The policy change comes after a similar 2009 law that forbade the use of shackles during labor and in the days afterward. However, upon evaluation, officials found that a high majority of prisons were not abiding by this, signaling the need for new legislation.
“[Under the new legislation,] you’re unable to be shackled during any point in your pregnancy. No matter what the end outcome is of your pregnancy, whether [it] be stillbirth, live birth, termination: you still have the right to not be shackled postpartum [to] eight weeks after giving birth,” explains Benton. “We also included in the law that you are unable to have the officer in your room unless the doctor felt like it was necessary or the mother to be requested them to be in the room.”
Jaya Vasandani, co-director of the Women & Justice Project, clarified that under the 2015 law, all prisons in New York State must make incarcerated women completely aware of their rights.
“We also included that women are now required to be informed of their rights under this law and that was not something that existed in the 2009 legislation that we had worked on at the correctional association,” Vasandani says.
Along with Tamar Kraft-Stolar, co-director of the Women and Justice Project, Vasandani and Miyhosi were integral in passing the 2015 legislation. Benton held a particular interest in getting the new law signed into action, having been shackled during labor herself.
“You’re putting the mom at risk. You’re putting the unborn child at risk,” she says. “In addition to the health risks that it poses on women and babies, shackling is also unnecessary. You can have aseptic security by just having correctional staff who are trained.”
Despite the progress made in New York and by the Women & Justice Project, shackling remains prevalent across the United States. As the practice is up to the states’ discretion, many do not abide by policies that have been set in place. Others believe that shackling is necessary because these women present a threat which is, simply put, an unbackable claim.
“Prison has become a place for people who need addiction help, it’s become a place for people who need mental health help, it’s become a substitute for the rapidly shrinking and closing mental health systems in our cities and states, it’s become a place for people who are poor, people who can’t bail themselves out… But it’s not this place where it’s like two million really highly violent and dangerous people are,” Bandele said.
She added, “People have a huge misconception about who’s in prison. These are people. These are moms and cousins and sisters and daughters. We really want to give a voice and humanize the moms who have had to experience their motherhood while incarcerated.”