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.
Shackling women during labor is illegal; Illinois became the first state to ban the practice in 1999, and nine other states have followed suit. But more than 20 former jail inmates, including Walton, have filed lawsuits since 2008 against the Cook County sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, alleging that they were handcuffed by the wrist or shackled by the leg while giving birth. Most of these women, according to their attorney, had been arrested for nonviolent crimes and were awaiting trial. Last month, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve granted the litigation class-action status.
Officials at the sheriff’s office say their policy follows the law. 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.”
As of April, only handcuffs are used on pregnant women in custody, according to Patterson, changing a policy that previously permitted the use of handcuffs, shackles and belly chains that circle the waist and attach to the other restraints.
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.”
No one tracks the total number of women who give birth while incarcerated in the U.S., but the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2004 that 4 percent of women in state prisons and 3 percent of women in federal prisons had said they were pregnant at the time of their admission.
It remains unclear exactly when prisons and jails began shackling pregnant women. But historians believe that the practice likely became common in the 1970s and 1980s, following the civil rights and women’s rights movements, when criminal justice facilities adopted gender-neutral policies. Those policies resulted in the shackling of most prisoners — men and women, regardless of their condition — who were taken to or treated in a hospital. Shackling of pregnant women became more prevalent as greater numbers of women entered the criminal justice system due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the rise in drug-related prosecutions.
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!'”
That moment led to landmark legislation in Illinois, which ordered that “under no circumstances” should leg irons or shackles be used on any woman in labor or being taken to a hospital to deliver a child. The law also dictated that, upon the pregnant woman’s entry into the hospital, a correctional officer must be posted outside the delivery room. This reform changed what advocates say was then a standard practice of restraining women in labor and posting a guard at the bedside during delivery.
In recent years, a coalition that includes the ACLU and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights has lobbied for nationwide reform, helping to prompt the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2008 to issue a policy that severely restricts the practice in facilities under its jurisdiction. “There’s clearly a growing trend to recognize the gross violation of human rights that this is,” Smith said.
Three federal courts have ruled that the unnecessary shackling of women in labor is a violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2007 condemned the practice, and last month, the American Medical Associationissued a resolution calling the practice “barbaric” and “medically hazardous.”
“Most of these women are low-level offenders,” said Diana Kasdan, an ACLU attorney. “You typically have two armed guards with weapons guarding a woman in the throes of labor and who is really not in a physical condition to overtake those guards and make a run for it. It’s hard to imagine that on top of that you need shackles.”
Jennifer Farrar, 25, felt the first shudders of labor at the Rolling Meadows Court Building during an appearance on check forgery charges in January 2009. She was rushed to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, where doctors and nurses immediately protested when they saw Farrar’s ankles shackled together and her arm handcuffed to the bed, Farrar recalled. Northwest Community Hospital officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
It wasn’t until the final hour of labor, when it was time to push, that the guard removed the leg shackles, Farrar said. The handcuff remained on. “I was humiliated,” Farrar recalled. “I felt like I was nothing … like I had no rights.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney claims that guards sometimes reject doctors’ and nurses’ requests to remove restraints and, if there is no request for their removal, the restraints stay on.
Patterson, the sheriff’s spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on the circumstances of individual cases. But he said that, according to sheriff’s office policy, if a doctor doesn’t make a request, the restraints should be removed once a woman is in labor. Guards should not deny a doctor’s request, Patterson said.
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.”
The experience of giving birth while shackled and handcuffed stoked powerful emotions, from shame to rage, among the women suing the sheriff’s office. Simone Jackson, 41, has struggled with whether she will tell her daughter, Trinity, now 2, about the day she was born.
Throughout the 12 hours of her labor, a guard repeatedly denied requests by a nurse and a doctor to remove the handcuff around Jackson’s wrist and the shackle around her ankle; those restraints remained on through the epidural and the birth, Jackson said.
“Is this what you’re going to tell your child?” said Jackson, who was being held on a burglary charge when she gave birth on May 3, 2008. “How would she live with herself if she ever found out that she was born in shackles?”