Today the New York Times features a disturbing story about female prisoners who are shackled while in labor. The Times reports that "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." And a report released yesterday by Amnesty International USA states that 23 state corrections departments, along with the federal Bureau of Prisons, actually have "policies that expressly allow restraints during labor."
Shawanna Nelson, a prisoner at the McPherson Unit in Newport, Ark., is suing prison officials and a private company, Correctional Medical Services, after a 12-hour labor in which her legs were shackled together and she received nothing stronger than Tylenol all day. Nelson alleges that "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 a 1999 report by the Justice Department, "about 5 percent of female prisoners arrive pregnant" and 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." The Illinois law, which was the first to forbid restraints during labor, states: "Under no circumstances may leg irons or shackles or waist shackles be used on any pregnant female prisoner who is in labor." According to the Times, the New York Legislature is considering a similar bill. And 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."
While shackling women in labor seems a throwback to slavery, as Merica Erato, a woman who gave birth to her child in shackles, told the Times, Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, disagrees. "Though these are pregnant women," she said, "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 delivery." But surely there are other ways to ensure that violent behavior is restrained while also allowing women a humane birth. For instance, couldn't women be free to give birth unrestrained, with guards ready to intervene should the woman become violent? Pamela Simpson, a California nurse, paints a clear picture of how appalling the situation is: "Here this young woman was in active labor, handcuffed to the armed guard, wearing shackles, in her orange outfit that was dripping wet with amniotic fluid. Her age: 15!"
It can be easy to think of prisoners within a vacuum of punitive justice, as criminals doing time and not as mothers and fathers. But while a convicted felon forfeits many rights and privileges permitted to the rest of the population, a shackled birth seems beyond the pale.