Women speak out about shack­ling

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Lindsay Whitehurst

Many states are pass­ing laws against the prac­tice of keep­ing in­mates shack­led dur­ing child­birth.

SALT LAKE CITY — Michelle Al­dana gave birth to her first child chained to a hos­pi­tal bed.

Then serv­ing time at the Utah state prison on a drug charge, she says she la­bored through the dif­fi­cult 2001 birth for nearly 30 hours, her an­kles bleed­ing as the shack­les on both her legs and one arm dug in. “I felt like a farm an­i­mal,” she says.

The prac­tice of keep­ing in­mates shack­led dur­ing child­birth was once com­mon around the United States, but that’s grad­u­ally been chang­ing af­ter women be­gan speak­ing out, with 22 states pass­ing laws against it over the past two decades.

Utah and at least three other states are con­sid­er­ing join­ing them this year, af­ter the fed­eral govern­ment re­cently banned the prac­tice with a sweep­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form law. Many other states have poli­cies against shack­ling, but ad­vo­cates say with­out a law it’s harder to stop a prac­tice they con­demn.

Women are Amer­ica’s fast-grow­ing seg­ment of pris­on­ers. The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union es­ti­mates about 12,000 preg­nant women are in­car­cer­ated in U.S. jails or prisons each year.

“For me, it’s just a fun­da­men­tal is­sue of dig­nity,” said Demo­cratic state Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, who is spon­sor­ing the Utah mea­sure.

Though the state prison changed its of­fi­cial pol­icy to pro­hibit shack­ling in 2015, Pitcher has heard from a num­ber of Utah doc­tors who have treated in­car­cer­ated women hav­ing ba­bies in shack­les, some as re­cently as this year. Her bill, which would ap­ply to both the prison and lo­cal jails, passed the state House and is be­ing con­sid­ered by the Se­nate.

The prac­tice is an out­growth

of poli­cies re­quir­ing all pris­on­ers to be re­strained dur­ing med­i­cal treat­ment for safety, said Amy Fet­tig, deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Prison Project at the ACLU.

But child­birth is dif­fer­ent, she said. Pre­vent­ing a woman from mov­ing dur­ing la­bor in­creases the risk of po­ten­tially life-threat­en­ing health risks in­her­ent in child­birth, like blood clots. It also makes it harder to move her if there is an emer­gency, or feed the baby af­ter it’s born.

Mean­while, the phys­i­cal con­di­tions of la­bor make es­cape at­tempts un­likely, and there are no doc­u­mented cases of a woman get­ting away while hav­ing a child, Fet­tig said.

Still, some have raised safety con­cerns. In Utah, Repub­li­can Rep. Eric Hutchins has pointed out that vi­o­lent in­ci­dents hap­pen of­ten in state prisons, and hos­pi­tals have far less built-in se­cu­rity.

He ul­ti­mately voted for the bill, which al­lows some shack­ling dur­ing trans­porta­tion and the use of soft re­straints if an in­mate is doc­u­mented to be dan­ger­ous. Prison of­fi­cials are also in sup­port, and say their pol­icy change means women like Al­dana are treated dif­fer­ently to­day.

Most other states with­out laws against shack­ling

have poli­cies in place, but with­out strict con­trols, the prac­tice is hard to stamp out, said Lau­ryn King, a pub­lic-pol­icy doc­tor­ate stu­dent at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity who com­pleted a state-by-state anal­y­sis of laws on the topic.

“What are the odds that with­out spe­cific train­ing, your av­er­age cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer knows ev­ery pol­icy?” she said. In New York, for ex­am­ple, a re­port found the prac­tice con­tin­ued even af­ter a law was passed.

In Wis­con­sin, a woman said in a law­suit she was shack­led with a chain so short that she couldn’t reach the stir­rups dur­ing la­bor in Fe­bru­ary 2014. Ten­nessee and Arkansas have faced sim­i­lar law­suits and are weigh­ing bans on the prac­tice this year, along with South Carolina.

In Utah, Al­dana was bloody and sore af­ter her tough la­bor, which also left her with a bro­ken pelvis from the pres­sure of the baby. She was re­leased a month af­ter her son was born, and in the years since she’s re­cov­ered and be­come a sub­stance abuse coun­selor. Now preg­nant with her third child, she still suf­fers with anx­i­ety about child­birth.

“I just don’t think any woman, when they’re that vul­ner­a­ble, should ever be treated that way,” she said.


In 2001, an in­car­cer­ated Michelle Al­dana en­dured 30 hours of la­bor with shack­les on both legs and one arm.

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