pregnant inmates

Shackled love: The Pursuit to End the Shackling of Pregnant Inmates During Labor

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An interview with Sarah[1]


My name is Mark Schmidt; I hold a Masters degrees in Social Work and a Master of Arts in Catholic Thought and Life. I currently work as a hospice chaplain in Illinois but live in Iowa. Several years ago I spoke with a woman who shared with me the story of the birth of her child. An occasion so sacred as the birth of a child should be a joyous one. New life entering the world should be greeted with celebration. In this particular story this was not the case. Instead, one innocent child entered the world amidst humiliation and suffering and under severe threat to its wellbeing. What makes this story unique is that this child’s mother gave birth while serving a prison sentence in the State of Iowa. I myself would have not believed what I was hearing had it come from anyone but this young mother. The pain, sadness, and humiliation in this woman’s voice left me speechless as she shared her story. The following is as accurate of a description as I can tell of what it was like for this young mother to give birth in prison in Iowa.

In order to tell you this story I would like to introduce you to Sarah. Sarah is a real person. She broke the law and was sentenced to serve time in the State of Iowa. She was pregnant and incarcerated. When the time came for her to give birth instead of being whisked away to the hospital by a caring family member full of love and support she traveled an excruciating trip to Iowa City in a manner that was no less than torturous. Her description of the trip and the restraints used during her more than one-and-a-half hour trip matches those described to me by an email from the Iowa Department of Corrections in 2007:


“If they are more than six months pregnant, the offender should be placed in cuffs, belly chain, security box, and padlock; the leg irons will be carried by the escorting officer. The belly chain will be placed above the offenders’ stomach; so as not to cause discomfort. If it is a medical emergency, the shift supervisor can determine a form of lesser restraint, in order to get the offender out the door more quickly.”[2]


Sarah was on her way to the hospital to give birth to her child early one morning, chained up and strapped to a chair for over an hour-and-a-half. Once she arrived at the hospital she was handcuffed to the bed, and had “leg shackles”[3] applied as the hospital staff prepped her for surgery; she was to give birth via c-section. According to Sarah, while the hospital staff gave her intravenous fluids and took blood samples she remained in “leg shackles”. Sarah said she does not remember a time that the restraints were removed, although she could not be sure if they were or were not completely removed during surgery. Immediately after giving birth she was once again placed in “leg shackles”. This treatment continued even after Sarah began retaining water in her legs and ankles, causing painful swelling, the “leg shackles” were not removed. They remained on her legs. The only relief she received from this torture was the occasional visit by a merciful and courageous nurse who demanded their removal so she could make sure that no damage was being done due to the “leg shackles.” As is often necessary following delivery, Sarah needed to move around to prevent complications from the surgery. “I had to walk around the hospital floor with shackles on my legs.” Humiliating is the only thing that can describe this treatment. “It was degrading…They treat you like you are not even human.”

Sarah’s voice trembled as she said to me that her experience giving birth to her child “was just horrible.” Her voice was soft during most of our conversation. There was no joy in her voice as she described the birth of her child. Instead, what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, she described it to me simply: “it felt like hell.”  I asked Sarah what she would like from telling her story. The first thing she said is that “having your baby in prison is not easy.” She then became very earnest. “If my story can help anyone, just one woman, not have to go through what I did, then telling my story will be worth it.”

As I hung up the phone with Sarah I was stunned at what I had just listened to from this young woman. A week prior to my conversation with Sarah the Iowa Department of Corrections had told me that the issue was not a problem and that my pursuit of legislation to prohibit the use of restraints on women during their stay at the hospital to give birth was unnecessary. What the Department of Corrections ignores is that this practice has happened. Furthermore, we need a law that brings all correctional facilities under a universal procedure for women who give birth while serving sentences or are awaiting sentencing. This should include, not only the Department of Correction, but also all county and municipal jurisdictions so that, no matter where a woman serves her sentence, no matter what authority she serves it under, she and her unborn child are treated with respect and their lives are not endangered by barbaric practices such as these.

Some may question Sarah’s honesty, integrity, and the validity of her story. After all, isn’t she a criminal who gave up her right to have a pleasant delivery when she broke the law? The simple answer to such a question is “NO!” Regardless of Sarah’s crime, her dignity as a human being should never have been denied. Sarah’s experience was not only humiliating but also dangerous. This ordeal was not only dangerous to Sarah’s life, but also risked the life and safety of her unborn and completely innocent child.[4] Shouldn’t our State be in the practice of protecting innocent life of children and not endangering it? This should not have happened to Sarah, and it should never happen again.

I am writing to say that such legislation is necessary to prevent another story like Sarah’s. This should never have happened to Sarah, especially in the State of Iowa. How many more Sarah’s will there be if legislation is not passed to prohibit such treatment? Please support legislation to ban the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in our state and county prisons and jails.




Mark Schmidt, MSW, MA

[1] Sarah is an alias I have given to the woman I have spoke with in order to respect her wishes to remain anonymous for fear of any retribution or added humiliation.

[2] This excerpt was taken from an email sent to me from Chris Gesie of the Iowa Department of Corrections; December 2007.

[3] “Leg shackles” were the words used by Sarah to describe the restraints used on her.

[4] The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publicly support legislation to prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant inmates during labor due to the safety risks to the life of mother and child. Highlighted in a letter to The Rebecca Project for Human Rights dated June 12, 2007.