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Elizabeth Warren Wants to Ban the Shackling of Pregnant Inmates for Good

Women are the fastest growing population of prisoners in America, and they're being shackled during pregnancy and denied basic menstrual products.
Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta via Stocksy

America's law books include a hodgepodge of inhumane bills that few people know about. (North Carolina, for instance, allows men to legally finish sex even if a woman revokes consent.) This week, Democrat Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker announced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, hoping to change some of these laws.

Co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin and Kamala Harris, the bill would bar prisons from shackling pregnant women or placing them in solitary confinement, according to the Huffington Post. Federal prisons stopped shackling women in labor in 2008 but continue to let guards shackle pregnant inmates. Warnice Robinson, who was imprisoned for shoplifting, shared her story for Amnesty International's 1999 report "Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody":


Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery, and they couldn't put my feet in the stirrups. My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs.

If passed, the new legislation would also require prisons to give female inmates free tampons and sanitary napkins.

"After their incarceration, these women will return to their families," Warren said press conference on Tuesday, according to Glamour. "They will be part of our communities, and it matters what kind of role these women will play after their incarceration. I believe that means that every one of us has an investment in these women—an investment in making sure that during the time they are incarcerated, that we do our best to make sure they are treated with basic dignity and they have a chance to emerge from their incarceration as intact human beings who are ready to come back to their communities, ready to come back to their families, and ready to make a real contribution."

Read more: Amanda Knox on Prisons Using Cult Tactics to Brainwash Inmates into Religion

"In the larger conversation of the criminal justice system, there is one population that is left out—and it's actually the fastest growing population of prisoners in the United States of America: women who are incarcerated," Booker said at the same press conference.

He's right. The Cut reported that the Sentencing Project found the number of female inmates grew from 26,000 in 1980 to 200,000 in 2014. Last year, Vera Institute of Justice and MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge co-published a similar study identifying women as American prison's fastest growing population, according to the Guardian. The number grew by 14 times since 1970, and researchers believe the increase has resulted in inmates facing more health problems and sexual abuse, which 86 percent of female inmates claim they have experienced.

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would only cover federal prisons (states and local governments will continue to set their own regulations), but it's a first step to fixing America's growing problem. As Booker said at Tuesday's press conference, "I've spent my time as senator visiting federal prisons, talking with formerly incarcerated women, and [visiting] with women who are [currently] incarcerated. If you listen to their truth, it brings a shame to what's happening in the US and it violates our common values and principles."