Fighting for Reproductive Justice for Women in Prison
by Tina Reynolds and Victoria Law
“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. 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 WORTH, an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated women based in New York City, 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.
Recognizing the power of women’s individual stories to enact change, WORTH is launching Birthing Behind Bars, a project that not only collects stories from women nationwide who have experienced pregnancy while incarcerated, but also strengthens their capacity and ability to share their stories. Too often, issues of reproductive justice are separated from issues of incarceration. Birthing Behind Bars ties women’s individual experiences to the broader issues of reproductive justice (or injustice) behind prison walls and helps push a state-by-state analysis of the intersections of reproductive justice and incarceration.
This past March, Arizona became the sixteenth state to pass anti-shackling legislation. Thirty-four states still have no legal protection for women who give birth while behind bars. In Georgia and in Massachusetts, formerly and currently incarcerated women, their advocates, and reproductive rights activists are currently pushing for legislation to prohibit the practice of shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery. Stories of incarcerated women’s pregnancies and birth experiences have proven to be powerful tools when educating the general public and confronting legislators to support such a bill.
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, a feminist, abolitionist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” issued a proclamation urging women to celebrate Mother’s Day in the United States. For Howe, Mother’s Day was not a holiday simply for breakfast in bed, cards and flowers — it was a call for women to shape their societies at the political level.
Even though Mother’s Day has passed, the need for action has not. Please, take a few minutes to reflect on the reality of women who give birth behind bars. Then take a few more minutes to find out how you can help shape a society where no woman ever has to give birth while in shackles and chains.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women(PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. She is currently working on transforming Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.
Tina Reynolds is co-founder and co-chair of Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH) and an adjunct lecturer at York College/CUNY. She is a co-editor of “Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States” (UC Press 2010).