Gloria Estefan, American singer, writer and actress once said “motherhood is… difficult and…rewarding”. The transformation of a woman into a mother is an evolutionary happening which makes her experience the joys of selfless love and constant devotion towards her child. Even though pregnancy is a normal biological process yet both pre-natal as well as post-natal care is important. It is easy to talk about efforts that can be taken to ensure safe delivery in normal situations but is it equally possible in case of a woman who has been convicted of a crime and is serving jail sentence?
The negative impacts that incarceration can have during those 9 months and while delivery are way beyond what we can understand or perceive. The torture these women are subjected to when they are behind bars corroborates State’s inability (whether consciously or unconsciously) to safeguard them when they are the most vulnerable. An example of this is the exposure of horrifying practice of forced abortion by administering abortion shots, torture or very hard labor in North Korean prison in 2002 which shocked everybody. If the baby was born alive it was either killed by the authorities or the inmates were forced to ‘get rid of it’.
The situation is no better even in some of the most advanced democracies of the world who take pride in their codes and constitution based on ‘equality for all’ principle. In United States, a woman who goes behind bars is often shackled in chains and handcuffs even when she is pregnant. Several incidents have been reported where expecting mothers serving sentences in U.S. prisons were handcuffed and chained even during the labor pains. In 2008 a lawsuit was filed by Eva M Hightower, an inmate at the Knox County Detention Facility against Knox County and Sheriff's Office employees for medical negligence and medical malpractice. Hightower alleged that despite repeated calls for help and assistance she was forced to give birth alone in the jail where the baby tumbled on the floor as the umbilical cord severed while falling into the pool of blood and suffered bruises.
Apart from this, issues relating to health and hygiene, medication, substance abuse, overcrowding, nutrition and family support always exist. These women are already victims of shame, helplessness, passivity and violation of basic human rights and such traumatization within the walls of the prison together with the mental stress of providing a healthy lifestyle to their newborns makes life increasingly difficult.
It is difficult to summarize the problems faced by incarcerated mothers in prisons around the world because the state of affairs varies from one country to another. However, some common problems which are commonly encountered by expecting mothers serving imprisonment are:-
- Shackling of women prevents their mobility which can be frustrating. It also increases the risk of injuring the fetus.
- Limited access to medical facilities increases the possibilities of still births and miscarriages
- In many countries overcrowding of prisons makes life difficult as there is lack of privacy.
- These women become social outcasts and all contacts with family network are severed.
- Medical checkups by professional gynecologists are not done on a regular basis.
- There is greater risk of being sexually abused by the male prison staff.
This is just a fraction of the actual problems. The damaging effects prison life can have on expecting mothers is beyond estimation. Even if the child is born, they are separated from their mothers leaving both the child and the mother to carry on living a life of agony and anguish. Complications and dilemmas prevail even after the term of imprisonment is over as social re-integration becomes questionable.
Painful childbirth was a punishment given to Eve for disobeying God’s will- “To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) But it is also true that the miracle of childbirth makes her forget and bypass the pain she had to go through. “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16:21) If God inflicted pain upon woman while giving birth to a new being, he also gave her the confidence, audacity and courage to go through this. It would be inhumane if a woman who is harboring a life in her womb is tortured and subjected to ill-treatment.
What can we do? The question is simple but at the same time complex and the problem has been there for centuries yet overlooked. ‘Security’ is the fundamental need of expecting mothers in prisons and it should be made available. They should feel secure about themselves and about their child. Education and counseling can also help them to some extent. Vocational and job training if made available, they can be self-sufficient once they are released. Prison reforms are vital but the need of the hour is to have a movement, a ‘movement for incarcerated mothers’ where the individuals, the associations and organisations and the state should come together to develop a network of community-based services for pregnant women in prison to help them re-build their lives.