By Christopher Zoukis
Casandra Brawley, a prisoner at the Washington Correctional Center for Women, had been leaking amniotic fluid for three days when she was finally granted medical aid.  Ms. Brawley was shackled and then transported to a local hospital.  At the hospital, she was shackled to a hospital bed during labor, which was in direct violation of the Washington State Department of Corrections’ policy.

Despite repeated importunities from nurses and doctors, the corrections officers refused to remove the shackles.  Doctors determined an emergency caesarean was the only way to save the life of Ms. Brawley’s unborn child.  Before commencing the emergency procedure, the attending physician demanded she be freed of the shackles.  Reluctantly, the corrections officers complied.

Once the operation was over – and a newborn daughter was delivered – officers immediately shackled Ms. Brawley.  She remained shackled to the hospital bed, under constant guard, for the next three days, during which time she was treated for a previously undiagnosed case of E. coli food poisoning.

After fully recovering, still shackled, Ms. Brawley was transported back to the Correctional Center, where she was serving a 14-month sentence for shoplifting.  Thirty days later, she was released from prison, having served only half her sentence.  Her early release was predicated on her good behavior.

Even though she was considered a model prisoner, posed no flight-risk, and had no history of violence, Ms. Brawley was shackled during labor.  “I was treated like a caged animal,” she said.  “No other woman should have to experience what I went through.”

The practice of shackling pregnant prisoners is common in most states.  At the present time, only nine states – Connecticut, Washington, California, Illinois, Florida, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wyoming – have policies against shackling pregnant prisoners.  These nine states determined that shackling pregnant women was cruel, degrading, and unnecessary.  In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has stated that the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners carries serious, long-term health risks for both mother and child. 

Corrections officials assert the situation is not quite so simple.  Other considerations exist.  Prisoners are shackled for distinct reasons.  They cite security issues, such as the safety of hospital staff and the risk of attempted escape.  Corrections officials argue that in many cases the pregnant prisoners are violent felons, who have tried to inflict injury on nurses or doctors.  The end result of this type of thinking is that many states have policies in place allowing shackles during labor.  Risk of flight is the common justification for the practice.

According to The Sentencing Project, approximately 40,000 women enter the U.S. prison system each year, and the number is increasing.  Of those women entering prison, around 5 percent are pregnant.  The numbers indicate 2,000 to 3,000 babies are born to U.S. prisoners each year.  No exact numbers are available because the Bureau of Prisons does not keep records on births in custody.

Illinois was the first state to prohibit shackling during labor.  In 2000, the Illinois legislature passed a law declaring, “Under no circumstances may leg irons or shackles or waist shackles be used on any pregnant female prisoner who is in labor.”  California’s law goes even further, forbidding shackling during labor, delivery, and recovery.  Legislators in California added and specified the ‘recovery’ period, after discovering female prisoners at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, were shackled to their hospital beds after giving birth.

Arkansas has bucked all attempts to end the shackling of pregnant female prisoners, citing security risks as the reason.  The state has, however, begun employing flexible nylon shackles instead of metal shackles.  And during the actual delivery, in most cases, the nylon restraints are removed.

In 2006, the Wisconsin Corrections Department altered its policy on shackling pregnant prisoners.  The change came about because of widespread negative publicity.  The Post-Crescent newspaper reported that Merica Erato was forced to endure labor while wearing ankle chains in a hospital in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin.  Mrs. Erato was serving time in prison for negligent homicide after a car accident.  She was not considered a flight risk, nor did she have any history of violent behavior.  Faced with the general public’s outcry, the department elected to refrain from utilizing shackles during labor, delivery, and recovery.

The shackling of pregnant female prisoners occurs because of bureaucratic rules and regulations.  Prison rules are enforced willy-nilly by corrections officers, who have neither the latitude nor the authority to make judgment calls.  In other words, prison bureaucracies, believing themselves to be above the law, continue to function in their customary manner.  They ignore legislation, and abhor any change in procedure.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) invariably shackles pregnant women, most of who have not been convicted of any crime.  And even if convicted, the vast majority of female prisoners are non-violent offenders.  Thus, the flight-risk explanation is nothing more than a pretext for the physical and psychological mistreatment of women prisoners.

In 2009, Miriam Mendiola-Martinez was arrested in Scottsdale, Arizona.  At the time of her arrest, she was 7-months pregnant.  She was held in the Maricopa County Jail until she could be turned over to ICE agents.  Mendiola-Martinez was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.  She had paid $400 dollars for a fake I.D., which she used at Dillard’s department store, where she worked.

Since she was an illegal alien, the court denied bail.  During her two-month stay in jail, Mendiola-Martinez was escorted to pre-natal appointments.  While waiting, she was shackled and forced to sit on the floor with 20 other women.  Eventually, Ms. Mendiola-Martinez gave birth to a son, by means of caesarean section.  As the doctors operated to save the infant, her female guard mercifully removed her shackles.  Once the infant had been delivered, while she was still bleeding in recovery, another guard shackled her to her hospital bed with a 12-foot chain.

Ms. Mendiola-Martinez was not permitted to nurse her baby.  Two days after giving birth, she was escorted out of the hospital in shackles.  Her C-section was hemorrhaging, and she had no knowledge of where her baby was.  She was transported back to jail.

The next day, Ms. Mendiola-Martinez was transported to court for a hearing.  Ms. Mendiola-Martinez was too weak to walk.  Placing her in a wheelchair, the guards pushed her into the courtroom.  Both her hands and her legs were shackled.  Ms. Mendiola-Martinez’s pro bono attorneys were aghast, and filed a formal motion for dismissal of her case.  The judge agreed.  Ms. Mendiola-Martinez was released for “humanitarian reasons.”

Speaking through a spokesperson, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office stated that “soft restraints” were used on all hospitalized prisoners to prevent escape.

“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.”

Fortunately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is not as inflexible as ICE.  BOP officials have voluntarily consented to halt the routine shackling of pregnant female prisoners in federal custody.  Shackles are used only as a last resort in cases where a proven flight-risk exists.

Unfortunately, most women prisoners are in state, not federal, custody, so the abominable practice of shackling pregnant female prisoners prevails at the state level.  The ACLU is actively pursuing reformation of methodical shackling.  Because of the ACLU’s efforts, and the efforts of other human rights groups, significant advances have occurred.  Yet much remains to be accomplished.

Public awareness is the most important factor.  Once enlightened, society’s response is shock and dismay.  Followed by a demand for sweeping changes in policy.  Most Americans do not condone torture or maltreatment of animals, much less human beings.  When informed that pregnant female prisoners are shackled during labor, delivery, and recovery, nearly all people react with open-mouthed wonder.  They cannot imagine such a deed occurring in the 21st Century.  It’s barbaric.

Ultimately, the shackling of pregnant prisoners is an unfeeling attitude that must be abated.