Shackled During Labor: Nothing to Lose But Your Humanity

By Christine Cupaiuolo — July 20, 2010

The image of pregnant women heading to the delivery room with handcuffs, leg shackles and belly chains is almost inconceivable. Yet as we have documented here before, it has been common practice in the United States prison system for decades and is still legal (and commonly practiced) in all but 10 states.

Efforts against shackling, led by a coalition that includes the ACLU and The Rebecca Project, have gained significant ground recently. Colorado, West Virginia, Washington state and Pennsylvania passed laws in 2010 banning the practice.

And the American Medical Association (AMA) voted in June to develop model legislation states can use to pass their own anti-shackling laws. The AMA resolution condemned the practice, calling it “barbaric” and “medically hazardous.”

But recent stories by Colleen Mastony of The Chicago Tribune and Andrea Hsu of NPR offer vivid and personal reminders of the entrenched and widespread use of shackling — even in a state like Illinois that has supposedly banned the practice.

In fact, more than 20 lawsuits have been filed by women against the Cook County sheriff’s office since 2008, even though Illinois became the first state to ban the practice in 1999. The lawsuits were granted class-action status last month; attorneys told Hsu that there ultimately could be up to 150 women included in the case.

From the Tribune:

Latiana Walton went through most of her labor at Stroger Hospital with an arm and leg chained to her bed, she remembers.

As contractions surged through her body, she could not move or change position to relieve the pain. A Cook County correctional officer repeatedly refused to remove the restraints, she said, even when a doctor objected, saying that he was unable to administer an epidural.

“I actually said to the guard, ‘Where am I going?’ I’m crying. I’m in pain,” recalled Walton, 26. “‘I’m not going to get up and run out of the hospital.'”

On Aug. 27, 2008, Walton, who had been arrested after she missed a court date on a retail theft charge, became one of an estimated 50 women who give birth every year while in the custody of the Cook County Jail. […]

In Walton’s case, she did not get an epidural and the guard agreed to remove the leg shackle only 10 minutes before she gave birth to her son, Darrion, she said. The handcuff remained on through the delivery, and the leg shackle was replaced immediately after the birth, she said.

“I couldn’t push the placenta out because I couldn’t position my legs,” Walton said. “It is not fair to treat a person like this. I did a crime … but I’m not willing to be treated like a dog. I was treated like I wasn’t human.”

Almost all of the women are low-level, non-violent offenders — their crimes include drug possession and forged checks. Yet the Cook County Sheriff’s office believes it is following the law in these cases:

A pregnant woman can be restrained, according to the policy, until a medical official confirms that she is, in fact, in labor. “When does ‘labor’ begin? Our officers aren’t trained to know, the state law doesn’t say, so we rely on medical personnel to advise us,” Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, wrote in an e-mail. “Once a medical person advises us someone is in labor, restraints of whatever sort are removed.”

But the plaintiffs’ attorney argues that restraints were, in his clients’ cases, removed too late or not at all. He contends that sheriff’s officials interpret “labor” as the moments immediately before birth, and that guards sometimes deny requests by doctors and nurses to remove the handcuffs and shackles. “When you talk to these women, they say, ‘Yeah, when I’m delivering and I’m pushing, that’s what they consider labor,'” said plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas G. Morrissey. “They remain in shackles and handcuffs until the baby is about to be delivered.”

The ignorance and stupidity on the part of the sheriff’s department is mind-boggling. Besides the harm and humiliation of the shackles, some women also had to put up with a stranger’s presence at one of the most intense and intimate moments:

Melissa Hall, 32, held on a drug possession charge, said that not only did she give birth in shackles in 2007 but, all through her labor, the guard sat next to her bed watching the NBA Finals, cheering and yelling at the television despite her repeated pleas that he leave.

“My legs were open, and my baby’s head was crowning,” she recalled. “And that’s when he walks out of the room.”

State law requires that a correctional officer be posted outside the delivery room. The policy of the sheriff’s office, according to Patterson, states that “an officer (preferably female) must provide security for the subject and be posted discreetly near the head of subject’s bed.” He contends that this policy does not violate the law because the law “does not say anywhere that an officer cannot be in the room.”

While the focus is on Illinois because of the class action lawsuit, it is equally disturbing that the policies of other states, including the 40 that do not ban shackling, are not widely known.

NPR interviewed Ginette Ferszt, associate professor and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of Rhode Island College of Nursing, who sent questionnaires to wardens in all 50 states about how they treat pregnant inmates. She received 19 replies.

Ferszt says she was quite surprised to find that two facilities continue to use leg irons, belly chains and handcuffs during transport to prenatal visits.

She also learned that among the 19 prisons that responded, six of them cuff either a woman’s hands or her ankle when labor begins. During the delivery of the baby, one prison says that handcuffs stay on, and four reported back that an ankle shackle remains on.

While disturbed by the findings, Ferszt did find hope in conversations with two wardens, when she realized their shackling policies weren’t something they’d thought much about.

“For many rules and policies whether for women or men, they’ve existed for them a long time,” Ferszt says. “It hadn’t really occurred to these two wardens that this could potentially be a health problem, a health issue.”

She says the two wardens have since said they’ll sit down and make changes.

Despite the arrogant rationalizations and depressing ignorance of the responses from the powers-that-be, one inspiring story comes from some of the first inmates who spoke out about the abuse. Their age-old strategy: female solidarity. Again from the Trib:

In Illinois, the first movement against shackling came in 1999, after a former inmate named Warnice Robinson testified before a group of female legislators, explaining how, while pregnant and imprisoned for shoplifting, she had been shackled to a hospital bed through seven hours of labor. “The women legislators kind of expressed disbelief because it was so horrifying,” recalled Gail Smith, director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, who had helped organize the day’s testimony. “There was a minor disruption, because the women who had been formerly incarcerated started shouting, ‘Believe her!'”

4 responses to “Shackled During Labor: Nothing to Lose But Your Humanity”

  1. Really appreciate the great resource you’ve created on this issue, i share the same passion for change in justice reform, I’ll be sure to link this article in my next blog post.

  2. What about us law-abiding women who are given dangerous medical interventions without consent, belittled, harassed, starved, and tied to the bed during labor?

    Kudos for bringing this disgusting practice to light, but you’re remiss not to mention that it’s part of a much larger issue in the disgusting human rights violation that is contemporary American obstetrics.

  3. Wow! Thank you for sharing this, I had no idea this was happening to this extent. This is extremely sad this is still happening in our country today. I really got a kick out of that the woman can be restrained until the “medical official” confirms she is in labor. I have been an L&D nurse for several years and that is still a subjective call and debated over often. I know these women are criminals, but I think this is a terrible thing to do to anyone who is having a baby. I have had a natural child birth and cannot fathom being tied down like some of these women are describing. I have to comment on Coffee Lady’s comment “the disgusting human rights violation that is contemporary American obstetrics.” That’s a bit harsh I think. I was just curious why you say that, did you have a bad birthing experience? As a nurse in the OB arena, I have to say that there is a reason for the interventions we do and there has been DRASTIC decreases in maternal and infant morbidity and mortality in the past decade. I feel sometimes there is a communication problem b/t the patient and health care team and the patient does not understand why we do what we do. Maybe this is what happen to you b/c you seem a little bitter about the world of obstetrics!?! I would hardly compare this article to the patient care I provide.

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