Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington State Federal Court: Unconstitutional to Shackle Prisoner in Labor

by Matt Clarke

On May 3, 2010, a U.S. District Court in Washington State held it was unconstitutional to shackle a prisoner in labor.

Cassandra Brawley, 30, was a Washington state prisoner. In 2006 she was arrested for second degree theft and received a fourteen-month prison sentence. She was five months pregnant at the time. Although Brawley had six previous felony convictions, she had never been convicted of a violent offense. Because she had two outstanding warrants and had failed to report once while on community supervision, however, she was classified as medium security and placed on “escape status.”

In April 2007, while incarcerated at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women, Brawley began leaking fluid, including a “gush of water.” She was transported to a hospital where they determined that her membranes had not ruptured and she was not in labor. She returned to the prison where infirmary personnel noted possible Braxton-Hicks contractions in her medical file. During this transport she was “fully restrained” with her legs shackled, hands cuffed and a belly chain connected to both the shackles and handcuffs.

Several days later, Brawley reported having contractions four to five minutes apart. The infirmary ordered her transported to the hospital “due to the possibility of active labor.”
She was again fully restrained during the trip. According to Brawley, prison guards Herbert Joy, who was armed and drove the transport vehicle, and Brydee Glasco, were aware she was in labor, with Glasco timing her contractions. At the time, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) had a clear policy stating that a “female offender will not be restrained during labor and delivery of an infant.” (DOC Restricted Policy 420.250).

At the hospital, Joy remembered one nurse being upset that a male guard was escorting a prisoner who was “obviously in labor.” Joy and Glasco chained Brawley to the hospital bed. She had complications due to lack of fluid and possible fetal infection, and eventually had to have an emergency cesarean section. The chains were removed for the operation but replaced immediately afterwards.

Twenty-two days after the birth of her son, Brawley was released from prison. She then filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit against Joy and Glasco in federal court, alleging their actions constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The state and the DOC were dismissed as defendants by stipulation, and Joy and Glasco filed a motion for summary judgment. The court held that Brawley did not have to exhaust administrative remedies because she was no longer a prisoner at the time she filed her lawsuit, and that the doctrine of latches did not apply as Brawley filed within the appropriate statute of limitations.

There was also evidence in the record that Brawley suffered unnecessary pain and was exposed to a serious risk of harm by being shackled during labor without any penological justification. Glasco claimed she was unaware that Brawley was in labor, even after Brawley was given an epidural for pain and to attempt a vaginal birth, but those were disputed factual issues to be determined at trial.

The central aspect of the case was whether a right to be free of shackling was clearly established. Noting a lack of Ninth Circuit precedent, the district court adopted the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning from Nelson v. Correctional Medical Services, 583 F.3d 522 (8th Cir. 2009) [PLN, Apr. 2010, p.20], holding that the right of a prisoner in labor to be free of restraints was clearly established prior to September 2003. Therefore, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment was denied with respect to failure to exhaust, latches and qualified immunity.

Four days after the court’s ruling, the defendants agreed to settle the case for $125,000. Brawley was represented by Legal Voice, a women’s rights organization that worked to have legislation passed in Washington State concerning policies for shackling prisoners in labor. See: Brawley v. State of Washington, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 09-cv-05382-RJB.

Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Brawley v. State of Washington