Human Rights

Protecting pregnant prisoners – the search for humanity in US prisons

Mothers behind bars are invisible to most of us. To the extent they are thought of at all, they are shaped into the ultimate bad mother who has violated the basic maternal commitment to care for her children by engaging in wrongful criminal activities. In prisons in the US, there’s absolutely no respect for the sacredness of pregnancy and giving birth.

Despite the fact that the US has the world’s largest female prison population, the country as a whole is amongst the worst in the world regarding the treatment of pregnant women. Medium and maximum-security prisons across the nation routinely use belly shackles to transport pregnant prisoners to other facilities or to the hospital. Once they go into labor, many of these women are chained to their hospital beds, even if they’re undergoing a Cesarean section. According to a report by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, thirty-six states received failing grades (D/F) for their failure to comprehensively limit, or limit at all, the use of restraints on pregnant women during transportation, labour and delivery and postpartum recuperation. The shackling is not only demeaning and extremely painful, but the procedure can lead to serious health risks for mothers and babies.

DeShawn Balka was sent to the Clayton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia for a misdemeanour charge of marijuana possession. She was 5 and a half months pregnant and placed in the infirmary. When she did go into labour, her cries for help were ignored, and as a result of the whole ordeal, her baby did not survive. An investigation report issued by the Clayton County Sheriff’s office describes what happened:

“When Sergeant Mayo got to cell 3508 she saw Inmate Balka sitting on the toilet crying. Sergeant Mayo told Inmate Balka to stand up so she could help the baby. Inmate Balka refused saying it hurt too much to stand. Sergeant Mayo finally convinced Inmate Balka to stand and when she did, Sergeant Mayo observed a baby face down in the toilet. Sergeant Mayo then grabbed the baby and held its face out of the water until medical arrived. LPN Eugene Andry responded and removed the baby from the toilet and started CPR.”

This chilling account not only demonstrates the disgusting manner in which women are treated, but also explicitly highlights the risks this imposes on the child. Thirty-eight US states do not offer any prison nursery programs: the inmate gets 12 hours at most with her infant before the baby is passed on to a family member or the foster care system. This not only causes emotional distress for the mothers, but can have serious implications later on in the child’s life. One of the longest and most detailed studies of UK childcare has concluded that young children who are looked after by their mothers do significantly better in developmental tests than those cared for in nurseries, by childminders or relatives.

Many still insist on resisting this fact by claiming that those women in prison (no matter what crime they committed) are unfit to be mothers and their children are better off elsewhere. They argue that contact with their child will not in any way effect the behaviour of the inmates and that, as a result, their children will suffer at the hands of drug-dependant, violent mothers who are likely to return to prison. However, this is not the case at all, as is demonstrated by the result of the implementation of family treatment programs by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). Unlike prison nursery programs, these programs allow mothers to be not only with newborns, but with their other children as well. Some programs allow children to live with their mothers, while others give mothers the opportunity to interact with their children within the context of the community rather than a lock-down facility. In a fact sheet created by CSAT, the efficiency of these programmes is proven in that:

  • 60% of the mothers remained completely clean and sober.
  • Criminal arrests declined by 43%.

To place the current situation in the US into a global context, a recent article by The New York Times has compared the treatment of pregnant inmates in the US to that in China, a country usually criticised for its lack of consideration of human rights. Compared with the shackling that occurs in US prisons, amendments (described in more detail here) to China’s Criminal Procedure Law, due to take effect on the 1st of January, can be considered progressive.

It seems quite evident that if the US still want to be considered as a leading proponent not just of women’s rights but of human rights too, changes must occur. These women are not asking for special treatment, they are asking for humane treatment. We no longer live in a world that is simply black and white. It’s not fair to say, ‘you committed a crime, and you must pay the price.’ Lives are at stake, and not just those of the ‘guilty’.

As first seen on Protocol Magazine at 


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