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Birthing Behind Bars: A Campaign for Reproductive Justice in Prisons

by Victoria Law and Tina Reynolds

“I never thought of advocating outside of prison. I just wanted to have some semblance of a normal life once I was released,” stated Tina Reynolds, a mother and formerly incarcerated woman. But then she gave birth to her son while in prison for a parole violation.

“When I went into labor, my water broke. The van came to pick me up, I was shackled. Once I was in the van, I was handcuffed. I was taken to the hospital. The handcuffs were taken off, but the shackles weren’t. I walked to the wheelchair that they brought over to me and I sat in the wheelchair with shackles on me. They re-handcuffed me once I was in the wheelchair and took me up to the floor where women had their children.

“When I got there, I was handcuffed with one hand. At the last minute, before I gave birth, I was unshackled so that my feet were free. Then after I gave birth to him, the shackles went back on and the handcuffs stayed on while I held my son on my chest.”

That treatment, she recalled later, was “the most egregious, dehumanizing, oppressive practice that I ever experienced while in prison.” Her experience is standard procedure for the hundreds of women who enter jail or prison while pregnant each year.

Upon her release, Reynolds started Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH) to give currently and formerly incarcerated women both a voice and a support system.

In 2009, Reynolds and other WORTH members took up the challenge of fighting for legislation to end the practice of shackling women while in labor in New York State. At rallies and other public events, formerly incarcerated women spoke about being pregnant while in jail and prison, being handcuffed and shackled while in labor, and being separated from their newborn babies almost immediately. Their stories drew public attention to the issue and put human faces to the pending legislation. That year, New York became the seventh state to limit the shackling of incarcerated women during birth and delivery.

In March 2012, Arizona became the sixteenth state to pass anti-shackling legislation.
Thirty-four states still lack legal protection for women who give birth while behind bars.

In Georgia and Massachusetts, formerly and currently incarcerated women and reproductive rights advocates are pushing for legislation to ban the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery.

Recognizing the power of women’s individual stories to enact change, WORTH has launched Birthing Behind Bars, a project that collects stories from women nationwide who have experienced pregnancy while incarcerated. Birthing Behind Bars ties women’s individual experiences to the broader issue of reproductive justice (or injustice) behind prison walls, and helps push a state-by-state analysis of the intersections of reproductive justice and incarceration.

WORTH wants to hear your stories of pregnancy behind bars. What was medical care like? Did you birth your baby while incarcerated? What was it like to hold your baby for the first time? What happened in the moments after? To share your story, please write to:

Women on the Rise Telling HerStory
171 East 122 Street, #2R
New York, NY 10035

If you have access to a phone line, you can also call in your story anytime on our toll-free hotline: 1-877-518-0606. (Don’t worry if you make a mistake, as we edit all the calls).

Let your friends and family members on the outside know about our campaign! Ask them to visit our website and sign onto our pledge to end shackling and other reproductive injustices behind bars:

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