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Our Bodies, Our Stories: Reproductive Health Behind Bars


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Image by (cc) Flickr user Thisisbossi

Image by (cc) Flickr user Thisisbossi

Pregnant women in America’s prisons are being shackled to their beds and cells.  Others are being sterilized, some say, against their will.  Correctional institutions claim the policies are for safety’s sake, and that consent is always obtained.  But others see a larger pattern at work. On this edition, from shackling to sterilization, thousands of incarcerated people are struggling to maintain control over their own reproductive health.


Host: Jen Chien

Producers: Jen Chien, George Lavender, Andrew Stelzer

Contributing Producer: Lisa Bartfai

Thank You to the Mary Wohlford Foundation and the Omnia Foundation for partial funding of this program.



Saturn Strobe – Pantha du Prince I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free – Nina Simone

Jen Chien This week on Making Contact

BBD1 We have this stories of people having their ovaries and uterus removed. Either they were not informed or they were misled.

JC: Pregnant women in America’s prisons are being shackled to their beds other are being sterilized some say against their will. Correctional institutions claim the policies are for safety’s sake and that consent is always obtained but other’s see a larger pattern at work .

BBD2: “Locking up women of color, through the years that they might be able to reproduce, ignoring their reproductive health needs all throughout incarceration. I would tie that back to the idea that women of color should not be able to reproduce On this edition, from birth control to giving birth , thousands of incarcerated people struggle to maintain control over their own reproductive health.

JC: I’m Jen Chien, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

Imagine you’re in prison. You’re wearing a jumpsuit that’s too big for you, or maybe it’s too small. Heavy chains around your ankles and wrists make it difficult to walk without tripping. Another metal chain is tied around your waist, and it’s attached to the person in front of you, and also to the person behind ……Now imagine that you’re seven months pregnant. Thousands of incarcerated women around the United States have had the experience of being shackled throughout their pregnancy. And as Making Contact producer, Lisa Bartfai found out, there’s a growing movement to ban the practice.

Samantha Rogers: that’s very disturbing and uncomfortable for be in a hospital like that cuffed and not feeling like human not being able to bond with your baby and stuff like that.

Lisa Bartfai: Back in May 1993, Samantha Rogers was locked up at the Central California Women’s Facility, CCWF, where she also gave birth to her son.

SR: Well at the time when I went in labor we went to the infirmary at CWWF and the nurses didn’t really want to deliver my baby, because they kept saying they weren’t qualified to do it. And he came out and my afterbirth didn’t come out until the ride to the hospital. We both came out the building naked. They put a sheet over me and a blanket on my son. That’s how we went to Merced hospital and as soon as I got there they immediately put a gown on me and they handcuffed my ankle to the bed.

LB: Lying there, handcuffed to the bed, Samantha says someone did speak up for her.

SR: The nurse saw that he was handcuffing my ankle to the bed she was like, “Is it necessary for you to put handcuff on her ankle right now?”. She made a big scene about it and just walked off, but she was there talking to me and you know trying to keep me calm from what happened and stuff so.

LB: Back in 2003, Carolyn Sulfrin, found herself on the other side of that scene.

Carolyn Sulfrin: What got me interested in this population in the first place was an experience in 2003 when I was a resident in training in an OB GYN in Pennsylvania and I delivered a baby of a woman who was shackled in bed. And it was an extremely traumatic experience for me as a doctor, and also for the patient.

LB: Since then, Carolyn has seen many women restrained…

CS: That can include handcuffs, it can include belly chains, it can include chains around the ankles.

LB: These restraints can be a real danger. Having hands and feet tied up makes it very difficult to walk, and falling is an ever present threat. For pregnant women, the consequences of a fall can be catastrophic.

CS: if there’s any sign of fetal distress as a medical practitioner we need to respond rapidly, within seconds. And if a woman is shackled or restrained in any way that really interferes with our ability to intervene. And in those moments we don’t have time to be negotiating with a guard or a correctional officer to say, “Hey you mind just unlocking those handcuffs, those restraints?” That’s just not what we should be spending our time doing. And If we lose time acting in these emergency situations then that can cause some serious harm.

LB: Stories from medical professionals like Carolyn are common but getting statistics on exactly how many pregnant women there are who are pregnant prison can be difficult.

Karen Shain: Not the county jails or the juvenile facilities actually keep a count of how many there are how are pregnant in their custody. Nationally the estimate is around 10% of incarcerated women are pregnant.

LB: That’s Karen Shain, she is the former policy director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.

KS: There are approximately somewhere 10-15,000 women in prison, jail and juvenile facilities at anytime in California which is extraordinarily high. Of those, if you figure that it’s about 10%. We believe that there are somewhere about up to about 1500 women at any particular day that are pregnant and incarcerated in our state.

LB: California isn’t the only state where pregnant women in prison are shackled. For some it’s been an experience that has moved them to action.

Tina Reynolds: Well I believe that the experience that I had being handcuffed and shackled in transit from the jail to the prison and then the experience I had being handcuffed and shackled while giving birth sparked my anger.

LB: Most states still don’t have special protections for pregnant prisoners. They are restrained and handcuffed just like any other inmate.

Back in 1994, Tina Reynolds gave birth to her son in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.

TR: I was able to put aside the reason I was in prison. It could happen to me, I was in prison, I committed the crime okay, but my son had nothing to do with it. He was not a co-conspirator to my crime so why was I being treated like that? Why was there a possibility, god forbid, that there might be a harm that would come to me while I was in labor or birth there would certainly be harm befallen on him? Why would that have to happen?

LB: Tina walked out of prison together with her son nine months later. On the outside, she got together with other formerly incarcerated women. Out of their meetings grew a new organization called, Women on the Rise Telling HerStory, or WORTH

TR: Our society thinks that if you do the crime that you do the time. And whatever comes with that time, you should be able to deal with it. We criminalize people. We punish people. We are a punishing society. And so we really don’t look at it from a perspective of treating people humanely. And unfortunately, that’s the way it’s looked at. But in this particular case, we are not considering the harm that can be done both psychologically, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

LB: WORTH’s mission was to change the way the people think about incarcerated women. In 2009, the group began campaigning for a law to ban shackling in New York.


LB: WORTH held speakouts and rallies to push the issue. The most powerful tool they had to create public awareness was a simple one: stories….

TR: What we did as an organization, we began interviewing women who actually had the experience of being shackled. And we strengthened their story by giving them the support they needed to share their story with the media and various media outlets. So as this issue became more publicized the public became more aware of this particular practice that was going on. And this was huge because we didn’t think that a lot of people considered the fact that women go to prison pregnant.

LB: By telling their stories, Tina says the women in WORTH found support, and… success! That year New York became the seventh state to limit the use of handcuffs and chains during pregnancy and birth. WORTH now supports groups in other states like Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia who are pushing for protections for pregnant women in prison.

But it isn’t always easy. Moves to end shackling have been met with stiff resistance, often from staff working inside prisons and jails. Just listen to this General Assembly in Virginia in October 2012.

Joe Higgins: You have heard several testimonies here today some of it very inflammatory. It’s unfortunate that some of the information that were provided to you simply isn’t true. I know the Virginia Association of Regional Jail Superintendents, I am one of 21 of those, I just heard took a no position on it. I am opposed to the bill as it is taking away or mandating law, Mr. Chairman, where it should be policy and procedure. Thank you.

LB: Despite opposition like this, a growing number of states have passed legislation to limit the use of restraints during pregnancy. Thanks in part to doctors like Carolyn Sulfrin, a fellow of the The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Carolyn Sulfrin: The risk that a woman who is having painful contractions is going to run off or be threat to public safety is pretty minimal. Some of these women also choose to have epidurals during labor and in that case their legs are numb and they are not able to run off. So from a common sense perspective it doesn’t make much sense. And from a medical perspective it is dangerous and it interferes with our ability to provide comprehensive care and emergency care.

Jen Chien: We’ll hear more about the campaign to stop shackling after the break.

You’re listening to “Making Contact,” a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for C-D copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts go to radioproject-dot-org. Like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter—our handle is making-underscore-contact. Coming up:

BBD3: It’s very clear shackling and sterilization are very connected and come from a sense that our communities don’t matter enough to protect and have what they need to be healthy.

But first, Making Contact’s Lisa Bartfai finds out how formerly incarcerated people are organizing to stop the shackling of pregnant women in prison…

Lisa Bartfai: California passed a bill banning shackling during labor back in 2004. Karen Shain, formerly of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, takes up the story:

Karen Shain: There’s been an international move to stop shackling of pregnant women during labor and delivery. We worked with pregnant women throughout that time and began the process of trying to end shackling with a bill in 2004. That stopped the shackling of pregnant women during labor, delivery, recovery.

LB: But campaigners say they began to realize that this law didn’t go far enough.

KS: But very soon after that we began to get letters from pregnant women. The one that really struck us was a woman named Pauline in Contra Costa county jail right here in the Bay Area, who wrote a letter and said she found out she was pregnant while she was in jail. During that time she went through her whole pregnancy she had to go to court, she had to go to the hospital to the doctor’s appointment and every time she was shackled around her belly, she was handcuffed and she also had shackles around her ankles, and her handcuffs were attached to the person in front of her. She said, “Isn’t that illegal?”.

LB: It turned out- it was legal. The law in California only protected women in the last 48 hours of their pregnancy. Karen says campaigners felt they needed to come up with a better plan. And in the winter of 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2530 into law.

KS: I think the main thing it changes is women who are incarcerated, whether they are in juveniles or so-called adult women, if they are pregnant there is now a law on the books that they are supposed to be treated humanely.

LB: Remember the doctor we heard from earlier, Carolyn Sulfrin? who she says that medical staff don’t have time to wait for correctional officers to remove restraints in an emergency? Well, Karen says that the new law addresses that and any medical personnel that is caring for a pregnant woman can order handcuffs and chains to be removed instantly.

KS: We were able to win this particular battle and it was only one battle. And I think it is true across the country. Is that you do the best you can and you keep at it. For us it was really about community organizing getting more and more people to sign petitions, to call the governor and write letters and talk to each other, and we won. You know we won, but people are still in prison and we have a long, long way to go.

Jen Chien: Karen Shain, former Policy Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, ending that report by Lisa Bartfai. — Shackling is just one of the reproductive health issues people inside US prisons face. For years, activists have tried to draw attention to the many challenges to getting proper reproductive health care in prison.

Victoria Law: Prisons destroy women’s reproductive capabilities, both literally with invasive medical procedures, um or negligent health care, or life threatening health care, and also by looking at who gets sentenced to prison and for how long.

JC: That’s Victoria Law

Victoria Law: My name is Victoria Law, I’m a writer, photographer and a mother. I write about women in prison and resistance and organizing.

JC: When she was growing up, Victoria saw a lot of her friends going to prison, and that started her lifelong commitment to prison issues. She was involved in the successful anti-shackling campaign in New York we heard about earlier. She says time and again, she’s seen prisons damage women’s reproductive health

VL: Prisons often will interfere with woman’s ability to reproduce, whether through extreme medical neglect or extreme medical procedures hysterectomies, or other surgeries that destroy her ability to reproduce. But aren’t necessarily the only option to treat whatever it is.

JC: Sterilizing prisoners for the purpose of birth control is already supposed to be illegal but a few years ago activists in California began to hear stories from people inside prison that concerned them…

Courtney Hooks: Around 2005-06 people inside and people in our office noticed that several people were being approached by doctors and really encouraging them to undergo sterilization, removal of their ovaries, removal of their uterus

JC: That’s Courtney Hooks, campaign and communication co-ordinator for Justice Now!, A California group that works with prisoners to document human rights abuses..

CH: We have these stories of people having their ovaries removed ostensibly for medically necessary purposes but really upon review either that they weren’t informed or people were mislead- and the surgery was preformed as an overly aggressive response to whatever physical ailment they did have so someone having fibroids for instance, which often time are benign and don’t require such invasive remedies.

KIMBERLY: Mommy’s gonna talk about her experiences in prison. Do you remember, you was there with me. Do you remember? Mommy remembers because it was horrible.

JC: Kimberly was one of those who told her story to Justice Now!, In a video testimony. Kimberly was five months pregnant when she was sent to Valley State Prison for Women for shoplifting in 2009.

KIMBERLY: I was really scared to be in prison and be pregnant because I knew that the medical department even just for the regular population was really kind of horrible. You couldn’t get the services you needed. So I was really fearful for my unborn baby’s safety and health being pregnant in prison. There were a lot of the women were saying how there was this one doctor in the prison that was doing all these surgeries and taking these women’s uterus. I thought this was the most bizarre thing that anyone could say.

CH: One thing people in prison have been doing is informing each other and giving each other a heads-up that this is going on and when you go to the doctor’s office: beware.

KIMBERLY: I was told by this same doctor that I had two fibroid tumors that were the size of grapefruit. Wow I couldn’t believe it when he said that I was going to need to have a full hysterectomy. He told me that they needed to be removed because they were so huge that if they burst I could bleed internally. So I had asked if I could get a second opinion or if could talk to someone else, or wait I could wait til I get release of prison and went to a doctor outside of prison so that I can get a second opinion and explore other options than a full hysterectomy. I felt really uncomfortable, he was really putting the pressure down on me really heavy to sign a form to authorize to have this surgery within a week. I told him that there is no chance that I will have this surgery within a week without talking to someone or at least talking to my family. He almost would not let me leave his office til i signed to have the surgery.

JC: Eventually, Kimberly says she was able to leave the doctor’s office, and she didn’t have the operation. But when she got out of prison she went to see another doctor, to get a second opinion– and she got a surprising answer.

KIMBERLY: I went to the doctor and I told him in prison I was told I had fibroid tumors and hysterectomy was necessary. So they ran tests, and didn’t see any tumors. So they thought that was just really weird, that this doctor saw two the size of grapefruits, but doctors on the outside didn’t see any tumors.

JC: That wasn’t the only questionable medical experience Kimberly had in prison. When it came time to have her baby, Kimberly was taken to a local state hospital for a caesarean section.

KIMBERLY: And right before they were going to do, I had already received epidural and was under anesthesia…and moments before the surgery was to start the doctor told me he said, so this is a tubal ligation?

Courtney Hooks : Kimberly was on the operating table, had anesthesia put into her so she was starting to fade and the doctor asked her at that moment, about…. about getting a tubal ligation…

KIMBERLY: So I panicked because I was like, “No I am not doing a tubal ligation, we were not doing a tubal ligation here!” He was under the impression that because i was getting a C-section that he would just go ahead and do that.

CH : Kimberly’s story is absolutely horrifying- and anyone who hears it should be horrified- she doesn’t know if she did have a tubal ligation because she can’t can’t access her medical records as you heard she’s talking about not being fully conscious going under and being sedated and the doctor handing her a form

KIMBERLY: So what he did is he brought in a form and he had me sign it uh saying that I did not wish to have the tubal ligation. I was very uncomfortable because I was under anesthesia, and I didn’t really know if I was signing it right. It was a long form and I wasn’t sure I was reading it right. And I don’t think I had the time to read it, it was a long form. And there were doctors around and the surgery was ready to start. And here I am reading legal form which I think I should have done at a more appropriate time and not when I am under anesthesia, velcroed to the table ready to have surgery. So here I was. I was really nervous about that, I tried to read it as best I could. I wasn’t really at the right state of mind to make that kind of decision to have my tubes tied up. I signed somewhere, that was that. I don’t really know if I signed to have a tubal ligation or to not have the tubal ligation. I never received a copy of the paper. I tried to get a copy, but didn’t — CH: It’s not my story, and it’s also in a way as a black woman very much in my veins, that history of not being valued and having your body be considered fair game for other people who have been given more power and given more value in society to do with your body whatever they want. I’m a black woman my family were enslaved in this country, our baby making was seen as money making for certain people, for slave holders. And after that having grown up on government assistance, my mom’s baby making was seen as something that shouldn’t have happened. And I was seen as someone who should not have existed, or if I do exist not be given full access to certain resources to ensure that I could live a good life. So those are just a couple of example of the ways this particular story really resonate through my body and I’m sure other peoples.

Jen Chien: Justice Now! is campaigning for an investigation into stories like Kimberly’s.

CH: I think her story is very important for us to listen to and why the investigation needs to be held because there were at 180 at least, at least, between 2006 and 2008 of these surgeries that happened. Specifically while people were giving birth, or shortly after. Just knowing that that was Kimberly’s experience does need to send a red flag about the context that this happened within.

JC: Courtney Hooks says she wants to see stricter laws in place to make sure that any medical procedures done in prison are carried out with full informed consent. But ultimately, she says they need to go further…

CH: I think we really have to look at the shackling and the sterilization um in the larger context of why are people inside those jail and prisons? How can we start to remove people from that setting put people back home, put people in their communities, in our communities and really make sure that people have what they need to stay out to not end up there in the first place. Because these things keep happening, these abuses keep happening and we can and we should definitely put our efforts towards attempting to stop them while people are inside. But really in the long term make sure that people don’t end up in a place where I think abuse is not just likely but inevitable to occur.

JC: Groups like Justice Now! Believe that sharing these women’s stories and experiences is a powerful first step towards ensuring that all people in prison receive proper healthcare. As was seen in the anti-shackling campaigns can help the public view of these hidden issues.

At an event in 2012 to celebrate the passage of the anti-shackling law in California, Samantha Rogers reflected on the power of sharing her own story.

Samantha Rogers: Hello everybody, like they said, my name is Samantha Rogers. And I was one of the women inside that was shackled. I am very honored to be chosen to speak and I am very honored to be in a room with people that fought for that. Because that is humiliating, you know, to be feeling like you are an animal in a cage. And I don’t know. Change is here, it’s here. The more we get involved in the community, in the world around, statewide. The more change is coming to be because the more everybody is been aware what really happens behind closed doors. Thank you for letting me share!??[Cheers from crowd at celebration event]

JC: And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact.

For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800 529-5736, or check out our website, to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Eric Galatas from Denver, Colorado got in touch to tell us why he values Making Contact.

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We want to hear from you too. Like Making Contact on Facebook, or follow us on twitter—our handle is Making, underscore, contact. I’m Jen Chien. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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