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Many U.S. Prisoners Give Birth In Chains

Childbirth is sacred in most cultures. But for many female prisoners in the
U.S., the process can be cruel and degrading. According to a March 1, 2006,
report by the human rights group Amnesty International U.S.A., 23 state
prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons expressly allow the
shackling of prisoners during childbirth.

One of those states is Arkansas, where Shawanna Nelson, a prisoner at the
McPherson Unit in Newport, has filed a lawsuit challenging the practice.
Nelson was in labor for more than 12 hours before prison authorities
transferred her to a local hospital on September 20, 2003.

With chains around her ankles and in excruciating pain (she had been given
nothing stronger than Tylenol all day), Nelson says she begged to have the
shackles removed. But her guard refused, even though a doctor and two
nurses joined her request. She was shackled all through labor, said
Cathleen V. Compton, Nelson's attorney. The doctor who was delivering the
baby made them remove the shackles for the actual delivery at the very end.

Dee Ann Newell, who has taught prenatal care and parenting classes in
Arkansas prisons for 15 years, called the practice appalling. If you have
ever seen a woman have a baby, you know how we squirm. We move around, she

Like Arkansas, many states justify the use of restraints by arguing that
women in labor remain escape risks, though supporters of this ludicrous
proposition can't point to a single instance of this happening. You can't
convince me that it's ever really happened, said Ms. Newell. You
certainly wouldn't get far.

In most instances, according to people who have studied the issue, women
are shackled because prison rules are unthinkingly enforced in other
environments. This is the perfect example of rule-following at the expense
of common sense, said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty
International U.S.A. It's almost as stupid as shackling someone in a coma.

Only two states--Illinois and California--currently outlaw the use of
restraints during labor and delivery, although the New York legislature is
considering a similar ban. The Illinois statue, enacted in 2000, states
that under no circumstances may leg irons or shackles or waist shackles be
used on any pregnant female prisoner who is in labor. The California law
took effect in January 2006 and prohibits shackling prisoners by the ankles
or wrists during labor, delivery, or recovery. We found this was going on
in some institutions in California and all over the United States, said
Democratic assemblywoman Sally J. Lieber. It presents risks not only for
the inmate giving birth, but also for the infant.

In her lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADOC) and
its oxymoronic medical provider, Correctional Medical Services, Ms. Nelson,
who is now known as Shawanna Lumsey, claims the ordeal of going through
labor without anesthesia and while largely immobilized has left her with
residual back pain and damage to her sciatic nerve.

Yet despite the problems associated with shackling women in labor, Arkansas
has resisted banning the practice. But Nelson's suit has already had some
positive effect. Arkansas now uses nylon restraints that are softer and
more flexible, said ADOC spokeswoman Dina Tyler, and they are removed
during the actual delivery.

The prison systems of five states--including Washington, Connecticut, and
Wisconsin--and the District of Columbia also currently ban the practice of
shackling women in labor, though as a matter departmental policy rather
than law. The Wisconsin DOC, for instance, ended the use of restraints
after a state newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent, reported on the issue
in January 2006.

One Wisconsin prisoner, Merica Erato, reportedly went through labor in May
2005 with her legs chained together, her husband, Steve, said in an
interview. It is unbelievable that in this day and age a child is born to
a woman in shackles, he said. It sounds like something from slavery 200
years ago.

About 2,000 babies are born to U.S. prisoners annually, according to an
estimate by the Sentencing Project.

Additional source: The New York Times

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