Shelley Halstead, LSRJ Summer Legal Intern
We interns here at the LSRJ national office spent the greater part of our first week drafting a memo on shackling. If you haven’t heard, prisons around the country continue to shackle pregnant and birthing women immediately before, after, and while they are giving birth. I knew this was happening but honestly, hadn’t made it a priority to acquaint myself with the ins-and-outs of it. With the onslaught of reproductive rights and services being attacked it is sometimes easier to fight on a front that is more familiar and more established. Basically, I wasn’t comfortable.
But one of the responses I received when sharing my research affirmed for me why we have to continue talking about the things that make us and others uncomfortable. I was asked to not keep saying the word “shackling,” not because it was inaccurate (I suppose I could have used “restraints”), but similarly for me, it conjured up images of a not too distant past when black women were once chattel. And why shouldn’t it? The disproportionate numbers of black and brown women in prison continues to tell our story as a disenfranchised minority in this country. Fifty percent of incarcerated women are African-American yet make up thirteen percent of the female population in the US while two-thirds of incarcerated women are women of color. It’s something you might suspect, but when confronted with the numbers, it’s rather disturbing.
If reproductive justice is truly what we’re after, not just choice, then this issue is one central to our path toward it. Until we address the social reality of inequality, (specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destinies) then our realization of autonomy and self-determination will cease to materialize.
The great news is that more and more legislatures are restricting this practice. A lot of people across the political and social spectrum agree; shackling is barbaric. It is something we can stop. I’m not saying that our other challenges are something we can’t change, but clearly racism, sexism, and classism are systemic, otherwise we would have changed them by now. And while the reason there is such disproportionality in prison is systemic, the actual practice of shackling is symptomatic—an outward manifestation of those systems. The long-game is reproductive justice, and eliminating the practice of shackling is but one of the ways we will achieve it.