Document Type



In recent years, the scholarly literature, the journalistic press, and even pop culture have begun to grapple with the many ways in which prison life works to degrade and dehumanize female prisoners, particularly pregnant women and new mothers. These voices are drawn — quite understandably — to the worst abuses, to practices (such as the shackling of laboring women) that underscore the dichotomy between the brutality of prison life and the allegedly autonomous norms governing pregnancy and parenting in the outside world. This article supplements — and in crucial places challenges — the narrative implicit in those depictions by, first, placing practices such as shackling in the context of the many less dramatic ways in which prison policies and norms strip autonomy from pregnant and laboring women, and, then, by exploring the substantial overlap between the restrictions placed upon incarcerated pregnant women and those faced by nonincarcerated women. The article concludes that the constraints and indignities imposed on pregnant prisoners are an outgrowth not only of patterns of social control of prisoners but also of patterns of social control of pregnant women more generally. Like our criminal sanctions regime, these pregnancy-specific patterns of control reflect and reinforce complicated ideas about race, class, and gender, and offer important insights into our culture’s values and preoccupations. Critically reading the experiences of women who are pregnant or laboring behind bars requires appreciation that their treatment stems from two distinct, though often overlapping, matrices of social control.