From: Sandrine Ageorges <>
Subject: US - Prisons Often Shackle Pregnant Inmates in Labor

March 2, 2006
Prisons Often Shackle Pregnant Inmates in Labor

Shawanna Nelson, a prisoner at the McPherson Unit in Newport, Ark.,
had been in labor for more than 12 hours when she arrived at Newport
Hospital on Sept. 20, 2003. Ms. Nelson, whose legs were shackled
together and who had been given nothing stronger than Tylenol all
day, begged, according to court papers, to have the shackles removed.

Though her doctor and two nurses joined in the request, her lawsuit
says, the guard in charge of her refused.

"She was shackled all through labor," said Ms. Nelson's lawyer,
Cathleen V. Compton. "The doctor who was delivering the baby made
them remove the shackles for the actual delivery at the very end."

Despite sporadic complaints and occasional lawsuits, the practice of
shackling prisoners in labor continues to be relatively common, state
legislators and a human rights group said. Only two states,
California and Illinois, have laws forbidding the practice.

The New York Legislature is considering a similar bill. Ms. Nelson's
suit, which seeks to ban the use of restraints on Arkansas prisoners
during labor and delivery, is to be tried in Little Rock this spring.

The California law, which came into force in January, was prompted by
widespread problems, said Sally J. Lieber, a Democratic assemblywoman
from Mountain View.

"We found this was going on in some institutions in California and
all over the United States," Ms. Lieber said. "It presents risks not
only for the inmate giving birth, but also for the infant."

Corrections officials say they must strike a balance between security
and the well-being of the pregnant woman and her child.

"Though these are pregnant women," said Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman for
the Arkansas Department of Corrections, "they are still convicted
felons, and sometimes violent in nature. There have been instances
when we've had a female inmate try to hurt hospital staff during

Dee Ann Newell, who has taught classes in prenatal care and parenting
for female prisoners in Arkansas for 15 years, said she found the
practice of shackling women in labor appalling.

"If you have ever seen a woman have a baby," Ms. Newell said, "you
know we squirm. We move around."

Twenty-three state corrections departments, along with the federal
Bureau of Prisons, have policies that expressly allow restraints
during labor, according to a report by Amnesty International U.S.A.
on Wednesday.

The corrections departments of five states, including Connecticut,
and the District of Columbia, the report found, prohibit the
practice. The remaining states do not have laws or formal policies,
although some corrections departments told the group that they did
not use restraints as a matter of informal practice.

Many states justify restraints because the prisoners remain escape
risks, though there have apparently been no instances of escape
attempts by women in labor.

"You can't convince me that it's ever really happened," Ms. Newell
said. "You certainly wouldn't get far."

About 5 percent of female prisoners arrive pregnant, according to a
1999 report by the Justice Department. The Sentencing Project, a
research and advocacy group, estimates that 40,000 women are admitted
to the nation's prisons each year, suggesting that 2,000 babies are
born to American prisoners annually.

Illinois enacted the first law forbidding some restraints during
labor, in 2000. "Under no circumstances," it says, "may leg irons or
shackles or waist shackles be used on any pregnant female prisoner
who is in labor."

Before that, said Gail T. Smith, the executive director of Chicago
Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, the standard practice was to
chain the prisoner to a hospital bed. "What was common," Ms. Smith
said, "was one wrist and one ankle."

The California law prohibits shackling prisoners by the wrists or
ankles during labor, delivery and recovery. Until recently, prisoners
from the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., were routinely
shackled to their beds after giving birth at the nearby Madera
Community Hospital.

"These women are mostly in for minor crimes and don't pose a flight
risk," said Ms. Lieber, who met with 120 pregnant women at the prison
in August. "Madera Community Hospital is in one of the most remote
parts of California. It's hard to walk to a filling station, much
less a bus stop."

Washington State has also forbidden the use of shackles during labor,
though as a matter of corrections department policy rather than law.
Pamela Simpson, a California nurse, described in an e-mail message to
Ms. Lieber the practice in Washington before the policy was changed.

"Here this young woman was in active labor," Ms. Simpson wrote,
"handcuffed to the armed guard, wearing shackles, in her orange
outfit that was dripping wet with amniotic fluid. Her age: 15!"

Arkansas has resisted an outright ban on restraints, though Ms.
Nelson's case may change that.

Ms. Nelson was serving time for identity fraud and writing bad checks
when she gave birth at age 30. She weighed a little more than 100
pounds, and her baby, it turned out, weighed nine and a half pounds.

The experience of giving birth without anesthesia while largely
immobilized has left her with lasting back pain and damage to her
sciatic nerve, according to her lawsuit against prison officials and
a private company, Correctional Medical Services.

Ms. Nelson, now known as Shawanna Lumsey, and lawyers for the
defendants did not respond to requests for comment. In court papers,
the defendants denied that they had caused any harm to Ms. Nelson.

Partly as a consequence of Ms. Nelson's suit, Arkansas has started
using softer, more flexible nylon restraints for prisoners deemed to
be security risks. They are removed, Ms. Tyler said, during the
actual delivery.

Ms. Newell considers that slight progress for the approximately 50
women in Arkansas prisons and jails who give birth each year.

"Childbirth should be a sacred event," said Ms. Newell, a senior
justice fellow at the Soros Foundation. "Just because they're
prisoners doesn't mean they shouldn't get the usual care."

Dawn H., an Arkansas prisoner who delivered a baby in custody in
2002, said her guard wanted to shackle her to the bed.

"Fortunately," she said, "I had a very wonderful nurse who told the
guard I was in her care. I was her patient. And no one was going to
shackle me." (She asked that her full name not be used because her
employer did not know about her imprisonment for passing bad checks.)

The Wisconsin Corrections Department has also recently changed its
approach, after a state newspaper, The Post-Crescent of Appleton,
reported on the issue in January. The department said it would end
the use of restraints during labor, delivery and recovery.

Merica Erato, serving time for negligent homicide after a car
accident, went through labor with chains around her ankles in Fond du
Lac, Wis., in May, her husband, Steve, said in an interview.

"It is unbelievable that in this day and age a child is born to a
woman in shackles," Mr. Erato said. "It sounds like something from
slavery 200 years ago."

In most cases, people who have studied the issue said, women are
shackled because prison rules are unthinkingly exported to a hospital

"This is the perfect example of rule-following at the expense of
common sense," said William F. Schulz, the executive director of
Amnesty International U.S.A. "It's almost as stupid as shackling
someone in a coma."

Copyright 2006The New York Times