Civil Rights Win in Case of Woman Shackled During Labor

By Rachel Walden |

In 2008, we wrote about the treatment of Juana Viilegas, who was shackled to a hospital bed during labor and after delivery, and denied access to her newborn or a breast pump in the days immediately after the birth.

Villegas was nine months pregnant and leaving a prenatal clinic with her three children when she was stopped by police. She did not have a driver’s license or auto insurance; Tennessee has recently made it much more difficult for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Because of her immigration status, although authorities had the option to simply issue a citation, Villegas was held in jail. When she went into labor, she was taken to the hospital, kept under guard with no privacy or ability to make a phone call, and shackled to the hospital bed during labor. Even requests by nursing staff that she be unshackled for personal care were denied by the guards assigned to her.

This week, a federal judge has now ruled in favor of Villegas in a civil rights case against the Metropolitan Government of Davidson County/Nashville, Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, and police officers involved in the case.

According to the local newspaper, The Tennessean:

In his decision Wednesday, Haynes wrote that Villegas was “neither a risk of flight nor a danger to anyone,” citing medical testimony. The judge concluded that shackling Villegas during the final stages of her labor and her post-partum recovery violated her civil rights.

One reference in the judge’s decision is an ACOG statement that “The practice of shackling an incarcerated woman in labor may not only compromise her health care but is demeaning and unnecessary.” Some states have banned the practice of shackling during labor, and following the Villegas incident the Sheriff of Davidson County announced that inmates at any stage of pregnancy, labor or delivery would no longer will be restrained except in rare circumstances when there is a credible threat of escape.

For much more background information and detail from the time of the 2008 incident, see our previous post. Colorlines has also covered the updated story.

The full decision is a fascinating and complex read, but is not freely available online; if you have access to a resource like Lexis-Nexis, see Juana Villegas, Plaintiff, v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County/Nashville Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, et al., Defendants. If we have any law student or lawyer readers, I’d love to hear your take on the full decision in the comments.

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2 Comments

  1. kyle says:

    This seems like the punishment does not fit the crime. Rather than issue her a citation they opted to hold a pregnant woman in custody? Not only does that provide her with added stress but probably induced her labor. As far as shackling her to the bed, it seems a but excessive. Is a pregnant woman in labor really a threat to flee? C’mon now, that is so ridiculous, people need to use more common sense.

    Frisco Gynecology

  2. Judy says:

    Clinicians and lay persons concerned about this case should learn more about collaborations between Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement. These collaborations result in countless stories of excessive punishment like Ms. Villega’s. I am a labor & delivery nurse, and it is heartbreaking to sit at the bedside of a new mother whose partner has just been deported. The latest program is the so-called “Secure Communities” which ostensibly allows ICE to identify and deport immigrants who commit felony crimes or pose a danger to the US. In fact, participating local agencies typically turn over to ICE the fingerprints of anyone charged (not even convicted) with any crime, including misdemeanors and juveniles. In Boston, a stunning 54% of immigrants detained & deported were never charged with any crime. Add to that number those who were lowest level misdemeanor offenders (such as driving without a license), and that number jumps to 69%. Get informed & get involved!