Stop Shackling Inmate Mothers

10/15/2009 08:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Most people react with disbelief when I tell them that many women inmates are shackled to the hospital bed during labor. I, too, was shocked when I first learned that this barbaric practice continues in American prisons. Sadly, it is not a rare occurrence. I think most Americans would be horrified to know that inmate mothers are being shackled while in labor.

There is good news, though. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a formerly incarcerated mother could sue the corrections officer who had shackled her legs to each side of the hospital bed while she was in labor. I hope that you will watch the video of Shawanna Nelson describing her ordeal. She was unable to move her legs or change positions because of the shackles. She had asked for an epidural but by the time the doctor arrived the baby was too far along. So, the only pain relief she got was Tylenol! I don't think anyone can hear Shawanna describe what she endured without concluding that this was cruel and unusual punishment.

Shawanna was not a hardened criminal. She had no history of violence; she was doing time for writing bad checks. The female corrections officer who placed her in the shackles admitted that she had no reason to believe that Shawanna might try to escape. Unfortunately, Sawanna's treatment is not an isolated case. What happened to her occurs in prisons across the country.

Prison Fellowship is working with a broad group of organizations that are trying to prohibit this barbaric and medically risky practice, except in extraordinary circumstances. Thus far, the federal Bureau of Prisons and six states have banned the practice with narrow exceptions, with Governor Paterson signing New York's legislation this year.

The American Correctional Association, which establishes standards and accredits prisons, has a very clear policy on shackling pregnant mothers:

The ACA expects every prison system to have in place "Written policy, procedure and practice, in general, prohibit(ing) the use of restraints on female offenders during active labor and the delivery of a child. Any deviation from the prohibition requires approval by, and guidance on, methodology from the Medical Authority and is based on documented serious security risks. The Medical Authority provides guidance on the use of restraints on pregnant offenders prior to active labor and delivery.
"Comment: Restraints on pregnant offenders during active labor and the delivery of a child should only be used in extreme instances and should not be applied for more time than is absolutely necessary. Restraints used on pregnant offenders prior to active labor and delivery should not put the pregnant offender nor the fetus at risk."

Many prison systems also have similar policies in place. In fact, the Arkansas DOC, which was where Shawanna was incarcerated, has clear policies in place. But the correctional officer shackled Shawanna anyway. Despite the policies, line officers apparently aren't clear about their responsibilities when guarding pregnant inmates. Because they aren't sure what to do, the C.O.'s often decide to shackle the woman prisoner, reasoning that no one will criticize them for unnecessarily shackling the mother, while they would be severely disciplined if they didn't shackle her when they should have.

In order to prevent other pregnant inmates from being subjected to such excruciating pain, each state should pass a very clear statute that explicitly bans the practice except in very limited cases, and then every officer should be trained in their responsibilities under the new statute.

I hope you will work with us to end this painful and degrading treatment of women in prison. For information on shacking and other issues that affect women prisoners see Justice Fellowship's Resource Page on Women in Prison.