Punishing Pregnancy: Race, Incarceration, and the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners

Punishing Pregnancy: Race, Incarceration, and the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners


The shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor and childbirth is endemic within women’s penal institutions in the United States. This Article investigates the factors that account for the pervasiveness of this practice and suggests doctrinal innovations that may be leveraged to prevent its continuation. At a general level, this Article asserts that we cannot understand the persistence of the shackling of female prisoners without understanding how historical constructions of race and gender operate structurally to both motivate and mask its use. More specifically, this Article contends that while shackling affects female prisoners of all races today, the persistent practice attaches to Black women in particular through the historical devaluation, regulation, and punishment of their exercise of reproductive capacity in three contexts: slavery, convict leasing, and chain gangs in the South. The regulation and punishment of Black women within these oppressive systems reinforced and reproduced stereotypes of these women as deviant and dangerous. In turn, as Southern penal practices proliferated in the United States and Black women became a significant percentage of the female prison population, these images began to animate harsh practices against all female prisoners.

Moreover, this Article asserts that current jurisprudence concerning the Eighth Amendment, the primary constitutional vehicle for challenging conditions of confinement, such as shackling, is insufficient to combat racialized practices at the structural level. Current doctrine focuses on the subjective intentions of prison officials at the individual level and omits any consideration of how race underlies institutional practices. Instead, this Article suggests an expanded reading of the Eighth Amendment and the “evolving standards of decency” language that undergirds the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause. Specifically, this Article argues that evolving standards of decency should be guided by other constitutional provisions, such as the Thirteenth Amendment. This expanded reading, which this Article refers to as the “antisubordination approach,” draws upon Justice Harlan’s oft- cited dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson and his underappreciated reading of the Thirteenth Amendment therein. Under such a reading, conditions of confinement that result from or are related to repudiated mechanisms of racial domination should be deemed “cruel and unusual punishments.” By challenging race and gender subordination at the structural level, this Article suggests that we can move from an aspiration to the actualization of humane justice.

 

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