Tennessee’s state legislature has passed a bill to restrict the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people this week, which now moves to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Lee for approval. It’s baffling and unnerving that we even need laws like this to protect pregnant people from such dangerous and degrading treatment, but it’s important for states to take action, nonetheless.
Tennessee is just the latest state to advance legislation on this matter, following a similar bill signed into law in Alabama just last month. NPR reports that 37 states have currently laws that limit or prohibit the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people—leaving roughly 13 with no laws restricting this horrific practice, including Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama, which just passed theirs. Not gonna name names, but we’re looking at you now, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Vermont and Michigan.
“Shackling is a dehumanizing, traumatic experience for the pregnant person and their baby, and this legislation is just part of what it will take to ensure incarcerated, pregnant people have some sense of dignity and respect throughout their pregnancy,” Briana Perry, co-director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Jezebel. Healthy and Free Tennessee was a leader in advocating for Tennessee’s unshackling bill.
According to the American Medical Association, shackling and restraining pregnant incarcerated people, particularly during delivery and the postpartum period, is “a barbaric practice that needlessly inflicts excruciating pain and humiliation.” The AMA also notes that restraining pregnant people “increases their potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall,” which, obviously, “can negatively impact her pregnancy.”
Each year, an estimated 58,000 pregnant people enter the US prison system, which disproportionately comprises people of color, and according to a 2018 study, 83% of hospital nurses who cared for incarcerated people during pregnancy or in the postpartum period said their patients were shackled “sometimes to all of the time.”
As medical experts and reproductive justice advocates have increasingly spoken out against the mistreatment of pregnant people in the prison system, crucial progress has been made in recent years to ban their shackling. On the federal level, in 2018, the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump, notably prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant people in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. Still, many of the laws being passed to restrict the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people provide exceptions if it’s suspected that they may attempt to escape or harm others, granting prisons significant leeway to continue the practice.
Tennessee’s bill notably features such an exception, after the state’s Sheriffs’ Association raised concerns about an earlier version of the bill and argued pregnant people who are behind bars can still pose a possible threat to those around them. Perry finds these “concerns” baffling. “When you are pregnant, and when you’re going into labor and delivery, you aren’t trying to run away and escape—this is a very critical and painful period,” she said. “They’re trying to get medical attention and support. They’re not trying to attack anyone, they’re trying to survive.”
As one professor at John Hopkins School of Medicine told NPR, the prison system simply wasn’t built to provide health care for pregnant people, or incarcerate women and non-cis men, in general. “The reason that we have to have a law, to me, is because our carceral system is fundamentally gendered to imagine the default prisoner as male,” Dr. Carolyn Sufrin said.
After all, it’s not just the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated people during birthing—incarcerated pregnant people are systematically denied their basic rights to the full range of health care, including abortion care. One study by Guttmacher found access to abortion was severely restricted, if not altogether prohibited in most prisons, despite how pregnant people retain the right to this service even when incarcerated. In Tennessee, as recent as 2017, a judge offered to reduce jail time for incarcerated people who opted to be sterilized in what many advocates argued was a form of reproductive coercion.
And following the case of Lizelle Herrera, a 26-year-old Latinx Texan who was jailed and charged with homicide for allegedly self-inducing an abortion, it’s also worth noting that an increasing amount of pregnant people are being criminalized and incarcerated for the outcomes of their pregnancies. Some of these outcomes include pregnancy loss following substance use, or any kind of substance use struggles during pregnancy, which Perry says should be treated with compassion rather than criminalization. This alarming trend comes amid a terrifying national rise in abortion bans, and consequent rise in surveillance and criminalization of pregnancy altogether.
Even when it’s not a pregnant person who’s incarcerated, the carceral system still carries devastating impacts for pregnant people, particularly in communities of color and Black and brown communities which are disproportionately targeted. By separating families from each other, the prison system can isolate pregnant people and new mothers from their only systems of support.
“Criminalization and incarceration are ultimately a health care issue as well as a reproductive justice issue for families,” Perry said. “We’re trying to build a world where reproductive health care decisions can be made without state interference, surveillance, or criminalization, and unshackling is just a part of that.”
Tennessee’s new bill to restrict the shackling of pregnant incarcerated people isn’t a cure-all for the many ways the prison system is wired to harm pregnant people—nothing short of decarceration and meaningful investments in health care and resources for pregnant people and their families could be a full win for reproductive justice. But the bill is a move toward improved conditions for pregnant people who are incarcerated, and that’s an important step forward.