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$4.1 Million Settlement Puts Jails on Notice: Shackling Pregnant Women is Unlawful

Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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May 24, 2012

Every year in the United States babies are born to women who are literally in chains – shackled to their delivery beds even in the act of labor. Thankfully, there is hope that this long-hidden and terrible practice – and the legacy of pain, humiliation and harm its causes mothers and children – will soon be eradicated from jails, prisons and detention centers across the country.

Yesterday, we saw another important step in this long march to a more fair and humane criminal justice system for pregnant woman and girls. A federal court issued preliminarily approval of a settlement of $4.1 million dollars to women held in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois who alleged that they were shackled while in labor, despite constitutional protections and a state law that prevented such practices.

In 1999 Illinois became the first state in the nation to pass a law banning the practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners and detainees during childbirth. California and Vermont soon followed suit, and in the last three years alone thirteen more states passed laws to severely restrict the practice. Others are considering similar bills. These states represent a broad and diverse swath of the country – for instance, Florida and Arizona passed laws this year, and new bills may become law in Delaware and Louisiana in the next few weeks. In the vast majority of them, the ACLU worked hand-in-hand with the faith community, women’s rights advocates, the medical community and prisoners and their families to ensure better laws and better protections for all mothers and their children.

This ever-expanding trend in state law is the result of both growing awareness of the practice and consensus on the part of medical experts such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA), as well as public officials and corrections experts, that shackling pregnant prisoners endangers the health and safety of both the mother and the fetus and is almost never justified by the need for safety and security.

These undeniable risks have also been the subject of a growing body of federal law holding that shackling pregnant prisoners during labor, delivery and post-partum recovery can violate the Constitution. In 2009, the ACLU represented Shawanna Nelson in a federal appeals court decision finding that constitutional protections against shackling women during labor are clearly established. Most recently, a federal court in Tennessee held that Juana Villegas, an immigration detainee, had her rights violated when prison officials shackled her during labor and post-partum recovery and thereafter denied a breast pump when she was returned to the jail, which caused her to develop a painful and predictable infection in her breasts. A jury subsequently awarded Ms. Villegas $400,000 for her pain and suffering. That case is now on appeal, and the ACLU has filed a friend of the court brief supporting Ms. Villegas.

The trend in the federal courts and the court of public opinion is clear: it is no longer acceptable to shackle pregnant prisoners during childbirth. Many states have already moved to ban this routine practice and many more are poised to follow suit. Our challenge now is to ensure that these state laws are implemented, and that corrections officials and officers and medical personnel are trained to uphold them. As we saw in Chicago, a law was on the books for over a decade but Cook County Jail still persisted in shackling pregnant women and placing mothers and babies at risk. The county is now paying the price for violating the law. States and local governments around the country should take notice: follow the law now and end the dangerous and inhumane practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth.

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