ACLU Works to End Barbaric Practice of Shackling Pregnant Women Prisoners

Shackling pregnant women during active labor and childbirth is, unfortunately, all too common in our nation’s prisons and jails. One such victim of this practice was Shawanna Nelson, who entered the Arkansas prison system when she was six months’ pregnant, with a short sentence for a non-violent crime. When she went into labor, the correctional officer accompanying her shackled her legs to opposite sides of the bed, and removed the shackles only long enough for the nurses to examine her. Ms. Nelson remained with both her legs shackled to the bed until she was taken to the delivery room, and she was re-shackled immediately after the birth of her son, who weighed almost ten pounds. The shackles caused Ms. Nelson to suffer cramps and intense pain, as she could not adjust her position during contractions. After childbirth, the use of shackles caused her to soil the sheets, because she could not be unshackled quickly enough to get to a bathroom. The correctional officer knew that Ms. Nelson was not a flight risk, and knew that the restraints caused pain and unsanitary conditions. According to expert obstetricians, shackling women during labor is inherently dangerous.

A federal district judge ruled that a jury should decide whether Ms. Nelson’s treatment violated the Eighth Amendment, but the defendants appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel reversed the district court and dismissed Ms. Nelson’s case. With the help of the ACLU's National Prison Project (NPP), Ms. Nelson was able to persuade the court of appeals to grant rehearing before the entire court and in September 2008 NPP staff argued on Ms. Nelson’s behalf that her case should go to trial. We await a decision.

Meanwhile, the ACLU works to persuade prisons and jails to end this barbaric practice. The National Prison Project, together with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, the Women’s Rights Project, and many of our state affiliates are part of a national coalition advocating for changes in policy and law at the federal and state level. To date, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals’ Service have both issued policies severely limiting the shackling of pregnant women and several state legislatures are now considering bills to limit or end the practice. Our policy and advocacy work continues to raise national awareness about efforts to ban shackling of pregnant women prisoners across the country. In addition we continue to negotiate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that pregnant women held as immigration detainees in federal, state and local facilities are not subject to this cruel and degrading practice.

Learn more about how pregnant women prisoners are treated in your state.

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Mr. Andy

Why not tell the whole story? what was the "non violent crime" that landed her in this situation...while pregnant? Obviously to land in prison while pregnant is an immediate danger to the unborn child. So...maybe the shackles were placed on her for a reason. This blog entry is very one sided.


Don't need lawyers for this one. Memo to all pregnant woman - don't commit crimes. If you do you may go to prison and while the state is delivering your child, free of charge no doubt, you will be in shackles as are all prisoners when being transported, for the safety of the corrections staff not for the comfort of the prisoner, and you might even soil the bed at some time during the procedure.

Lelia Katherine...

As a libertarian-minded young woman, I don't see how shackling anyone who is non-violent will produce positive results, whether that person has indeed been convicted of a crime or is being held in detention for other, various reasons.

This was not an issue of transporting Nelson, as DLuna says. This was an issue of shackling someone who was going through labor, a painful and frightening experience; she was shackled at the infirmary, not just when being transported there. While in the infirmary, she wasn't going to escape, and it is HIGHLY unlikely that she would have gotten up to any "mischief," particularly given that she has a non-violent history.

And to Mr. Andy: I went and looked up the court documents concerning this, and her crimes were indeed non-violent. You could have taken an extra minute to search this yourself (Google Shawanna Nelson), but since you seem to have felt this woman's life and story was not worthwhile enough to truly inform yourself, let me inform you. She was incarcerated for credit card fraud and hot checks--white collar crimes that, while indeed harmful, are not violent. The report of her case also mentions other, similar atrocities, including the fact that a comatose inmate was shackled to his hospital bed, despite extreme leg swelling. So, are the shackles placed for a reason? I'll let you decide, but I must say your comment is very one-sided itself and willfully ignorant. It is precisely the reason those with authority are sometimes too powerful for their or anyone else's good.

It is ironic that a nation so hell-bent on "right to life" concepts, and being in on the business of others, can so often, at the same time, support (or at least conveniently ignore) these sorts of atrocities that not only endanger and disregard the lives of those already born, but also, in cases like these, the lives of those entering the world.

If this painful, unfair and out of control experience has not forever mentally scarred this woman, it has certainly given her enough reason to hate and resent authority. I'm sure that will only encourage her to not abide the law when she is released.


Too right - prisoners are prisoners. If she hadn't done the crime, she would have to worry about being in prison and pregnant, now would she? Isn't that the real issue? I, too, would like to know the "non-violent" offense. And, though it's been a while since my labor experience, I remember it being just FULL of cramps and intense abdominal pain. It's not fun - that's while they call it "labor". BTW, it still hurts, no matter how you "position" yourself, and I'm sure she's not the only woman who has "soiled her bed" while bringing a child into the world. GET A LIFE!




I love these two comments! I agree with both of you. If you commit a crime and are sentenced to prison, you should be treated like a prisoner! She new she was pregnant when she commited the crime!


Anyone who supports torturing pregnant women for any reason whatso ever is no better than a common criminal


These are two of the most revolting comments of recent times


Definetly Mr. Andy is one of those who thinks he's a saint and perfect. Typical american. And obviously he hasn't see a partner giving birth. And if he does, he's a totally indifferent coldhearted airhead guy. Any one can commits mistakes, and that woman did. So what's the problem with it? It's says it was a non-violent crime. Non-violent offenders should not be treated like violent ones. Anyway what that officer did if a woman's rights violations. And that officer must pay.

Mike Evans

I cannot believe the way some people think these days.
Yes, a crime is a crime. It is not a "mistake", she intentionally frauded people, and if you consider this to be a minor crime, you obviously are more forgiving than most for letting someone steal your identity.
Do we know the behavior of this woman? Her crime may be non-violent, but she very well may be. It is unfortunate that someone like this is giving birth, let's hope they take the child away from this criminal.


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