Childbirth is one of the most sacred events of the human experience. All women deserve the dignity to give birth free of danger, restraint, or oppression. Unfortunately, this is not the case in America for inmates who are forced to go through labor in shackles – not metaphorical shackles; real ones.
More horrifying still, some of these detainees are pregnant as a result of rape, forced to endure shackling as rape survivors. Of course, there is also the welfare of a newborn child to consider: Around 2,000 babies are born to American prisoners each year, and according to the Women’s Prison Association, women are the fastest growing demographic in U.S. prisons.
Corrections departments in twenty-three states, in addition to the federal Bureau of Prisons, allow for restraints during labor. In only five states do corrections departments prohibit this practice; the remaining states do not have laws or formal policies. In 2000, Illinois enacted the first law forbidding some restraints during labor.
During labor, some women are shackled around the waist, while others are subjected to a black box placed between their wrists and belly to keep their arms in front. Yet others are shackled around the ankles while in transport vans or wheelchairs, while breastfeeding, and while in neonatal nurseries.
Many of those shackled during childbirth are given nothing but Tylenol to ease the pain. The experience of giving birth, immobile, without anesthesia, can leave prisoners with mental anguish, lasting back pain and permanent nerve damage.
How can we allow for a punitive justice system that strips Americans of their most basic decencies? Rebbe Yehuda argued that if a woman so much as urinates before the carrying out of her punishment, since she may not be shamed in this process, she is exempt from punishment (Mishnah Makkot 3:14). Being strapped in shackles while giving birth certainly would not pass muster with the rabbis.
In the Jewish tradition, a mother recites Birkat haGomel (a blessing of thanksgiving) after giving birth, because of the mortal danger involved in a normal birthing experience. This danger, and the ruling that women recite this blessing, pertains to a typical case of childbirth, without the added threat of being bound by chains. The Rabbis were sensitive to the extremity of the birthing event.
While a prisoner may lose relative social dignity and rights after breaking the law, he or she must never lose his or her absolute, undeniable human dignity and rights. The right to give birth without an added tortuous pain must be made absolute for all women.
There are many issues in prison reform that we can all consider advocating to change, but this is one that we must unite behind to ensure a swift reversal of policy. We are fighting not only for basic human rights but also for the holiness of the first mitzvah of the Torah itself, childbirth. An act of giving birth is nothing less than the paradigmatic partnership with G-d, a Partner not to be welcomed through chains!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.