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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, Nelsons 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 said.

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