Beyond Shackling

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, I immediately felt fear for her. My fear was quite specific; I feared she would be shackled.

The first time I saw a pregnant woman in prison, not only was I in a state that outlaws shackling pregnant women, I was in the prison as a volunteer for one of the main organizations that lobbied for the law against shackling. So, my fear found an apparently strange focus. But, of course, laws and policies banning shackling of pregnant women don’t guarantee pregnant people protection from shackling. New York, for instance, has a law against shackling pregnant women, and yet shackling still occurs there. Often.

Perhaps, then, my fear was not so strange. And knowing someone who may experience a torturous injustice can heighten one’s own sense of powerless. My regular movement in and out of prisons and jails has shown me how little there is I can do to keep these institutions from grievously harming those sentenced to time in them.

Nevertheless, I think my first reaction served as a bulwark. My initial fear and subsequent scrambling to pull together what resources I could to ensure that correctional officers would not shackle this woman gave me something to do that did not involve reflecting on a different practice she would certainly be subjected to. This woman, who wanted to keep her child, would not be allowed to do so. No matter how well the labor went, this woman would loose her child. And she would loose her child potentially forever if she could not remove the child from foster care within a year herself, or find someone who could do so for her.

And she is not alone; about 6% of women who are arrested are pregnant.

Prisons are technologies of social death. One of their key effects is the destruction of social relations, not just for those sent to them, but for the communities from which people are removed. This practice of removing children from mothers who would otherwise choose to keep them is just one way the prison produces social death through literal natal alienation. The kinship ties between women in prison and their children are perhaps most obviously severed when a newborn is removed from the mother minutes after she has given birth, but it is also just one way in which prisons interrupt and destroy social relations.

As I greeted the pregnant woman, distracted with fear for her, I distracted myself from reflecting on this other practice to which she would be subjected. I fear the current public attention to shackling could be serving a similar purpose on a bigger scale.

Shackling pregnant women is clearly wrong, and yet we struggle to end that practice. Given recent studies, we now know that if we succeed in passing laws against it, we have not guaranteed the safety of pregnant women in prison. But further, if we manage to end the practice of shackling – that is, if the current groundswell of moral outrage results in the modification of material practices by correctional officers in prisons and not just the passage of laws and policies – we should not rest easy that all is well for pregnant women or anyone else in prison.

As shackling receives more attention and public condemnation, we must keep the larger system in focus, along with its broader set of social death producing practices. And we must focus on what things are required to maintain it. We must ask: does the reform of one practice ameliorate the larger problems with the prison system? Is this system keeping us safe? Who do we mean by us?


Thanks to Andrew Dilts for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

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  1. Pingback: Beyond Shackling: An essay on prison and social death | PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR

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