Stop Shackling Pregnant Prisoners During Labor
Unless a woman is in jail for murdering her obstetrician, there is no good reason to shackle a female prisoner during labor.
Thankfully, and just in time for Labor Day, Pennsylvania has outlawed the use of shackles on prisoners giving birth. The law went into effect this week. The Pennsylvania legislature passed the bill, in part, due to the public outcry in the Tina Torres case. Ms. Torres, a female prisoner incarcerated in a Philadelphia prison on charges that were later dropped, spent 17 hours in labor shackled to a gurney. She now has a healthy baby, but also scars that circle her ankles from the shackles.
Ms. Torres’ case is not an isolated incident. Pregnancy in prison is not uncommon. And, neither is shackling prisoners while in labor.
The American Journal of Nursing reports that
Approximately 6% of women who enter American jails and prisons are pregnant. Many of them will go through labor, childbirth, and recovery with shackles around their wrists, ankles, or both. Some will be transported to the hospital in leg irons. Others will have chains wrapped around their abdomens.
One would think this issue is a no-brainer — there is no justification for restraining prisoners in labor. It is a barbaric practice. And it serves no purpose except to punish and humiliate the women.
But in 2008 in a case named Nelson v. Correctional Medical Services, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the shackling of a pregnant prisoners during labor did not constitute an Eighth Amendment violation. Ms. Nelson argued that being forced to go through the final stages of labor with both legs chained to her hospital bed was cruel and unusual punishment. Ms. Nelson, by the way, was a non-violent offender, incarcerated on charges of credit card fraud.
Only after en banc review by all eleven members of the court did the Eighth Circuit (in a six-to-five decision) rule that shackling pregnant women in labor violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
[T]hat five of the eleven circuit court judges dissented, makes clear both how far we have come and how far we still have to go to ensure the civil and human rights of all pregnant women (the dissent in [[the] opinion saw no “clearly established” constitutional violations in shackling Ms. Nelson during labor.) [source]
California, New York, Texas, and Vermont currently have legislation that prohibits the shackling of women during labor. And as of this week, Pennsylvania now has a similar prohibition. Connecticut, Florida, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming have prison policies banning the practice. [source]
It is time for legislators in the rest of the states to enact laws prohibiting this practice or face lawsuits for violating the 8th Amendment.