Ending the Inhumane Practice of Shackling Prisoners During Childbirth

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

This has been a year of progress on one of the least justified policies that many prison administrators still follow. On October 2, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, by a vote of 6-5, held that a jury should decide whether there was a need to shackle Shawanna Nelson while she was in late-stage labor, because such treatment, in the absence of a security need, constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is a critical legal victory in the campaign of the ACLU and many allies to end the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners who are in labor.

Shawanna Nelson entered an Arkansas prison in June 2003 with a short sentence for a nonviolent crime. When she went into labor, the correctional officer accompanying her shackled her legs to both sides of her hospital bed. She remained shackled until she was taken to the delivery room. After the birth of her son, the shackles were again placed on her legs. She suffered intense pain and lasting medical problems from the birth and the inability to move her legs. After childbirth, authorities’ refusal to remove the shackles forced her to soil the bed. The correctional officer knew that she was not a flight risk, and knew that the restraints caused pain and unsanitary conditions.

After a federal district judge allowed her case to go forward, Arkansas appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which threw out the case. At that point, the ACLU became involved, and staff from the Reproductive Freedom Project, National Prison Project and the ACLU of Arkansas assisted Shawanna’s lawyer in filing a petition asking that the case be reheard by the full 8th Circuit Court. The argument before the full court was hard fought and the court appeared to be closely divided. After I finished arguing on Shawanna’s behalf, I was uncertain whether she had won or lost that day. But I was thrilled and heartened by her presence, since she had been released from prison and was building a new life for herself and her son. Cathi Compton, her other attorney, introduced her to the court, so that they could see the real person who had been subjected to this inhumane practice.

Shackling women in labor and during childbirth is extraordinarily dangerous, for both mother and newborn, yet most jails and prisons mindlessly continue the practice, despite a dearth of evidence that any woman has escaped from custody during child birth. Shackling women during labor and delivery is almost never needed from a security perspective. Rather, shackling imposes a physically and emotionally devastating additional punishment on those women who give birth during incarceration, and a punishment completely unrelated to the blameworthiness of the woman subjected to this degradation.

Luckily, the ACLU and other advocates are gaining precious ground in the struggle to end this practice. Most recently, New York joined the list of states that have by statute prohibited this shackling during labor and delivery except in extremely limited circumstances. The federal Bureau of Prisons has also voluntarily reformed its practices; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, needs to follow suit so that women giving birth as immigration detainees do not suffer like Shawanna. Let us hope that, very soon, shackles in labor will have gone the way of the practice of chaining prisoners to a hitching post as punishment, and no more women will be victims of this painful and unnecessary practice.

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I can truly say Ms. Nelson has been a true inspiration to women that has endured this experience. This young woman has great courage and stood up for what she felt was right. Alot of times, we as people judge one another without getting involved enough to know the whole situation. Ms. Nelson is educated and doesn't fit the profile of what may seem to think of as "hard criminal." There is no way possible I feel that anyone can believe that shackling a woman in labor is justifable. The information I read was she was 110lbs and had a 9lb baby.She didnt have a record of drug use matter of fact, I think she even had a degree and is building a positive life. Here we are in the 21st Century in the United States of America, where we say we are changing, and we are letting our women prisoners be shackled while giving birth. Many states have animal cruely laws and will prosecute someone fully for abusing and animal-but on the other hand, we agree to let our women in US prisons be shackled while giving birth to innocent babies. We are against abortion-but risk the lives of an innocent unborn child to be birthed to a mother shackled to bedrails. We advocate for change to fight for reproductive rights in other nations but allow something like this to happen in our own nation. We spend millions and millions of dollars to investigate to see if any prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay were abused and here we are in our own country allowing our incarcerated women to give birth shackled to bed rails without pain medicine. This is so backwards. One female-shackled in an Arkansas prison has made such an impact- Imagine what a group of many can do


I think that the ACLU should stay out of peoples business when it comes to Christmas and other things you have made this world totaly go to hell and back.. Never did the things go wrong until you all put your noses in everything and when you all started has gone straight to hell.. Thanks
ACLU.. and stop bitching about the nevtivity seen in Clarksville if its not comeing out of your pockets just the hell up

Jacob S.

Well Anonymous, you have articulated the far right dysfunctional viewpoint quite well. How would you feel if Christians were no longer the majority and there were prayers to Allah and Islamic decorations in front of every U.S. federal and state building? Religious freedom is just that, there should be no favoritism among any sect regarding federal or state facilities.

Additionally, it is horrific and barbaric that female prisoners do not even have the ability to labor in their own way and as their doctor sees fit. If she was not a violent offender at high risk for harming someone, then she does not deserve to be restrained during childbirth.

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