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Ending the Inhumane Practice of Shackling Prisoners During Childbirth

Elizabeth Alexander,
Elizabeth Alexander, National Prison Project
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October 30, 2009

(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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