First of Many Steps to End Shackling of Incarcerated Women

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Originally posted on January 9, 2019

As a mother and a researcher who examines the impact of incarceration on mothers and babies, I am thrilled about the historic criminal justice reform bill, The First Step Act, that was signed into lawin late December 2018. Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population, according to the Sentencing Project, noting an increase of 700% between 1980 and 2016. Most are child-bearing age, the majority are mothers and are usually the primary caretakers of their children. Ending shackling of women during childbirth is “the number one issue impacting women”, according to Topeka K. Sam’s interview with NPR on Thursday, December 20th. Ms. Sam is a leading voice in favor of overhauling the criminal justice system. She played a pivotal role in the landmark bill.

There has been a disturbing increase in the incarceration of pregnant women—one Warden I spoke to called it “an explosion”—in large part due to the current criminal justice system’s approach, which includes mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes and the criminalization of drug dependency.  The majority of these women are victims of repeated trauma who develop mental health issues and are incarcerated for minor, non-violent crimes. What they need is substance use and mental health treatment, not jail time.

It may be surprising to anyone who’s given birth that the current norm for women who go through childbirth while incarcerated is being shackled. The term “shackling” refers to restraints on an arm and/or a leg with handcuffs or an ankle chain during childbirth, including labor, delivery and the postpartum period.  As Carolyn Sufrin, a medical anthropologist and OB-GYN at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, stated in an interview on NPR on December 5th, banning the use of shackling is “just common sense. The chances that a woman in the middle of labor, or even not in labor, can outrun someone and be a flight risk are just ludicrous”.

In some cases shackling may begin during transport to a medical facility and may continue during the whole hospital stay, including the brief time mothers have to hold, and bond with, their babies. Childbirth itself can be an empowering experience for women and has a two-generational impact: providing support for mothers also supports their children. We know parent-child bonding is critical to healthy brain development for young children. Can you imagine holding your new-born baby, perhaps trying to breastfeed, while shackled to a hospital bed?

There is still work to be done: unfortunately, this bill would only pertain to women incarcerated in federal facilities and under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Marshals Service, so it would not pertain to pregnant women incarcerated in state and local prisons, which is where the majority of women are incarcerated. Less than half of states ban this practice. We are fortunate in Pennsylvania to be one of the minority of states to have banned shackling (SB 1074, The Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act) but it took an extraordinary effort by a coalition of advocates to “push” it through.

I remember, as most of my peers do, holding my new born baby, knowing this was a life-long commitment I had made to care for, love and bond with this little person who would one day grow up into the adult he has since become. Don’t we want all babies to receive this great start in life, improving their chances of having a successful, productive, and happy future? For now, I’m celebrating and optimistic that the answer is overwhelmingly yes.


Dr. Marjie Mogul is the Senior Director of Research. Her career has focused on effective strategies improving the health and well-being of pregnant women and parenting families. She believes providing young children with strong foundations is the key to our future. Marjie’s expertise is research, evaluation and advocacy with women in the criminal justice system. She has presented at national conferences and participates in a working group of national thought leaders. Her proudest work accomplishment was when the New York Times printed her reply to their editorial, “Women Behind Bars” and she was subsequently invited to The White House Convening on Women and the Criminal Justice System. She received her PhD in Social Work and Social Research from Bryn Mawr College, a Master’s degree in Business from Pennsylvania State University, and an undergraduate degree in Economics from The George Washington University. An ideal weekend day: trail running with her pure-bred shelter mutts and husband, then dark roast coffee on the deck.