Unchain My Heart: The Shackling of Pregnant Women in Prison Needs to Stop


This article is one in a series published in collaboration with our sister organization, Strong Families.

Four years ago, Pauline Latu was being held in Contra Costa County Jail. She was pregnant. She asked if it was legal for her guards to shackle her around her waist and ankles even if she was pregnant, but each time she went to court, the guards placed shackles around her ankles and wrapped a chain around her belly. When she was close to delivery, Pauline developed pre-eclampsia, a dangerous condition of pregnancy, and she had to be hospitalized. She was in the hospital for a week, shackled to her bed. To go to the bathroom, she had to get a guard to unlock her from her bed. She would then drag her chain to a portable toilet because it was not long enough to allow her to go to the bathroom. She was traumatized. Her charge? Embezzlement. She was hardly a danger to her community.

Because of Pauline’s experience, a group of us decided to write a law that would ban the shackling of pregnant women. California already has a law that bans shackling during labor, delivery, and recovery, but every woman who has ever been pregnant knows that pregnancy is a lot longer than the last few hours of a nine-month process.

Since meeting Pauline, I have heard countless horror stories about being pregnant in California’s prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities.

A woman in Los Angeles was due to deliver her first baby. She said that she was handcuffed during all transportation to and from the doctor and was always cuffed behind her back. On this particular occasion, it was her nine-month checkup and she was cuffed for an extended period of time behind her back causing her shoulder to dislocate. She reports that she was in excruciating pain when she saw the doctor and that the doctor instructed the deputies that they were not to cuff a pregnant woman like that ever again. He then spent nearly an hour massaging the shoulder and arm back into place. Shante is currently in Valley State Prison for Women. She told me, “While I was pregnant, I was sent to court often. Most of the courtrooms are on the same floor as the jail so I wasn’t shackled when I went to court. But twice I was sent to a courtroom on a different floor. I was shackled around my belly and cuffed around my feet. I was eight months pregnant then. I can tell you that my pregnancy was incredibly difficult. It was not only humiliating, but I constantly thought I would lose the baby.” 

We thought passing our anti-shackling bill would be easy. After all, who would want to be seen arguing that pregnant women should wear chains? And in many ways it was easy! We never saw a “no” vote in the legislature. Even the prison guards union came out in support of our bill! 

But the law still hasn’t changed. For two years in a row, the governor (first Schwarzenegger and then Brown) vetoed this simple bill. For two more years pregnant women all over California have had to be transported in buses, attend court hearings, and see their doctors wearing belly chains, leg irons, and handcuffs that hold their hands behind their backs.

This year, we are trying again. California Assembly Bill 2530 (Atkins) would ban the most egregious shackling of pregnant women in our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities. If it passes, no pregnant woman will ever again have to endure belly chains, leg irons, or handcuffs that are worn behind her back. 

This is my Mama’s Day present to my incarcerated pregnant sisters — I will keep working to make sure that pregnant women in our state’s jails and prisons are no longer subjected to this barbaric practice.

To find out how you or your organization can support this campaign, please email Karen.

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