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ACLU Works to End Barbaric Practice of Shackling Pregnant Women Prisoners

Elizabeth Alexander,
Elizabeth Alexander, National Prison Project
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April 16, 2009

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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