All pregnant people deserve dignity before, during, and after birth.

We have long advocated for the rights of incarcerated people and the additional struggles marginalized communities face behind bars at the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability.

Pregnant people and new parents face several harmful circumstances in Wisconsin jails and prisons, including shackling, separation, and more. We’re using all of the tools in our integrated advocacy toolbox to address these issues.

Wis. Stat. 301.049

For three decades, justice-involved mothers have been legally entitled to access child care programs that allow them to remain a part of their infants' lives, but the Wisconsin Department of Correction (DOC)’s negligence has effectively denied them of the right. So we sued.

A long-overlooked state statute – referred to as the “mother-young child care program” – requires the DOC to provide programming that, among other things, allows pregnant and postpartum individuals who are incarcerated or on supervised release to retain physical custody of their infants and be held in the least restrictive custody. 

The DOC does not currently offer this program to any incarcerated person, and officials wrongly argue that the agency doesn’t need to follow the law because it is an “old statute and there is no funding for it.” However, the statute, Wis. Stat. 301.049, makes this program mandatory.

The ACLU of Wisconsin and Quarles & Brady LLP are representing two Wisconsin women in DOC custody: one who is currently pregnant and due in June of this year and a second who gave birth in DOC custody in 2023. DOC has denied or ignored their requests to participate in the mandatory statutory program.

A child should not be deprived of forging a relationship with their parent just because they are caught up in the criminal legal system. The court must compel the DOC to adhere with the law so fewer mothers are ripped away from their babies.

Anti-Shackling Movement

40 other states and Washington, D.C. already have laws prohibiting or restricting shackling pregnant prisoners. None of these jurisdictions have reported any escapes or threats to medical or correctional staff from pregnant people since prohibiting shackling.

The shackling of pregnant and birthing people is a violation of US constitutional law and has been denounced by both medical organizations like the American Medical Association and international human rights bodies like the United Nations.

During labor, delivery and postpartum recovery, shackling can interfere with provision of appropriate medical care, prevent proper maternal-infant bonding, and can be detrimental to the health of both the mother and the newborn child.  

The Wisconsin DOC currently has a policy in place to prevent the shackling of pregnant people in their care, but without legislation explicitly prohibiting the use of restraints, the policy can easily be reversed or changed. That’s why we join the #UnchainWI campaign to demand legislation passed at the state level.

Anti-shackling bills were proposed in the Wisconsin legislature in 2017, 2019, and 2023 but failed to receive a hearing. We hope our lawmakers pass a statewide shackling ban next session, as it’s medically crucial and long overdue.

Reproductive Health Care

We have long fought for reproductive freedom and improved medical care in Wisconsin facilities, especially for women, girls, and pregnant people. Although we have achieved victories, there are still many steps the DOC should take to properly care for those in custody, like implementing a doula program in jails and prisons.

In 2006, we won our lawsuit on behalf of female inmates incarcerated at Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI) in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, settling with the prison to set medical care standards, increase accessibility, and provide adequate health care to incarcerated individuals.

Yet, Wisconsin has one of the highest Black maternal mortality rates in the US, and a doula program in prisons could help address these disparities. The anti-shackling bill introduced in the 2023-24 legislative session would have established this program, but unfortunately it did not receive a public hearing.