Belly Chains on a Baby Bump: What It’s Like to Be Pregnant in Prison

Shortly after she became pregnant a few years ago, Mira Ptacin, author of the forthcoming memoir Poor Your Soul, began teaching at a prison. There, she met a woman named Courtney Fortin, who was pregnant, too—and incarcerated. At Elle.com, Ptacin tells Fortin’s story, shedding light on the experience of being pregnant in prison, and how frequently that involves being illegally shackled:

A recent study published earlier this year by the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit organization with the authority to inspect prisons, found that 23 of the 27 inmates who’d given birth while incarcerated in New York had been shackled in violation of the law, and this is not uncommon elsewhere. “You comply when you’re in prison,” says Amanda Edgar, an advocate with the Incarcerated Women’s Project. “One woman [told me] that if she didn’t keep her shackles on, she wouldn’t be able to go to her appointment and [that] other women have been denied access to prenatal vitamins.”

So shackles—belly chains around a baby bump during transport, chains around ankles during active labor—continue to be routinely used on inmates during pregnancy, even where they are technically banned, and even though there have been zero documented cases of pregnant inmates attempting to escape during prenatal checkups, labor, or postpartum recovery. Nor is there any documentation of a pregnant inmate attempting to cause harm to herself, security guards, or medical staff. The vast majority of female prisoners are non-violent offenders who pose a low security risk.

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