Thursday, June 7, 2012

Birthing Behind Bars: A National Campaign for Reproductive Justice Behind Bars

Birthing Behind Bars:
A National Campaign for Reproductive Justice Behind Bars

Twenty years ago, as Mercedes Smith went into labor, guards shackled her in chains and handcuffs for the ride from the jail to the hospital. At the hospital, they handcuffed her to a bed rail. Smith was shocked by the astoundingly cruel treatment: “I couldn’t understand where they thought I was going, in so much pain." But it wasn't unusual.

Each year, thousands of pregnant women enter jail or prison, and many of them give birth behind bars. And as they struggle through the pain of labor and the stress of delivery, some find themselves wrenching at restraints. As of March 2012, only sixteen states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have passed legislation that limit or ban the shackling of women during labor and delivery. "I have never heard a woman tell the story of wanting to run during labor," says Tina Reynolds, co-founder and chair of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH). "It's just not on their mind. Giving birth to our children in prison does not make them co-conspirators to our crimes."

To call attention to this gross injustice, WORTH is launching Birthing Behind Bars--a national campaign to address pregnancy and other reproductive justice issues in prison. Partnering with media justice group Thousand Kites, we've developed a website that shares women's experiences with prison pregnancies via video, audio and plain text. The site,, also points to a hotline where visitors can record and share their own narratives.

We'll utilize these jarring accounts to push a state-by-state analysis of the intersection of reproductive justice and incarceration. In 2009, members of WORTH, other formerly incarcerated mothers and their allies took up the fight to outlaw the shackling of women in labor in New York State. Formerly incarcerated women spoke about being pregnant while in jail and prison, being handcuffed and shackled while in labor, and being hastily separated from their newborn babies.Their stories drew public outcry and put human faces to pending legislation. Later, New York State became the seventh state to enact legislation limiting the shackling of pregnant prisoners.

The fight is already roiling in Georgia and in Massachusetts, where reproductive rights advocates, prisoner justice activists and formerly incarcerated women are currently pushing for legislation to prohibit the practice of shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery. Stories and testimonies of women's pregnancies and birth experiences behind bars are powerful tools to have in hand when educating the general public and confronting legislators to support such bills.

To share your story, go to:  or call 877-518-0606 
(NOTE: you'll get a recording hotline, not a live person, but we do edit the stories so youmake a mistake or want to back up and add a detail or something, feel free to do so. You don't say your story perfectly when you call.)

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