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Tennessee Jail Detainee Shackled During Childbirth Awarded $200,000

Juana Villegas won a $200,000 jury award in a § 1983 action against the Metro-Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee for being shackling while she was in the final stages of labor during her pregnancy and past-partum recovery. Villegas had asserted that the shackling was in disregard of a physician’s “no restraint” order, which violated her Fourteenth Amendment right “to be free from deliberate indifference to her serious medical condition.” She had also argued that the post-delivery denial of a breast pump violated her rights.

Villegas, 35, was arrested on July 3, 2008 for driving without a valid license. Due to the July 4 holiday she did not go before a judge until July 5th. While still in custody on the driving violation, she was screened under the 287(g) program of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and it was determined that she was in the United States illegally. Villegas was nine months pregnant at the time. ICE placed a federal detainer on her pending resolution of the traffic charges, which were later dropped.

At 10:00 p.m. on July 5, Villegas informed jail staff that her amniotic fluid had broken and “that she was having labor pains.” She was taken to the jail infirmary, her condition verified and an ambulance summoned. She was then “placed on a stretcher and transported to Metro General Hospital (MGH) with her wrists restrained in front of her body and her legs restrained together....” Villegas testified that she was in pain from contractions during this time, “but she remained shackled until she was transferred to her hospital bed from the ambulance stretcher.”

Nurses asked an accompanying jail officer to remove Villegas’ handcuffs so she could change into a hospital gown, and the male officers turned their back. After the gown was on, the officers again restrained her hands and legs while she was in the hospital bed.
Handcuffs were later removed but the leg shackles were not. A doctor signed a “no restraint” order, and shortly before Villegas gave birth the restraints were removed. After the birth, an officer restrained one of her legs to the hospital bed. However, whenever she went to the restroom, walked or bathed during her post-partum recovery, both of her legs were restrained. No visitors or phone calls were permitted during her hospital stay. Villegas was not allowed to leave the hospital with a breast pump.

After Villegas filed suit, both parties retained medical experts regarding the issues raised in her complaint. One of the experts, Dr. Sandra Torrente, concluded that “the shackling of a woman who is in her third trimester and whose water has broken is extremely dangerous because of, among other things, a potential for the umbilical cord prolapse.”
The same expert also noted that “Medical personnel need constant unrestricted access to a woman in labor. There are a number of complications that can occur.... Placing a pregnant woman in leg irons ... increases her risk of developing a potentially life-threatening blood clot ... [it is] extremely unsanitary and unacceptable.”

Other medical experts testified as to the psychological stress that Villegas suffered. “Unable to move or open her legs, she feared that her son would not be able to be delivered. She had to sit with the terror that her baby might die inside of her body.... She felt helpless.” This resulted, in their medical opinion, in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Additionally, they were critical of the denial of the breast pump due to the risk of mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue that results in severe pain, fever and chills.

The defendants responded that shackling prisoners at the hospital was necessary to prevent escape or to prevent a prisoner from injuring herself or other people or damaging property. While claiming the shackling was done in “good faith” in Villegas’ case, it violated the sheriff’s policy for “Hospital Inmate Security,” which stated that “All inmates shall be restrained ... unless otherwise directed by the attending physician....”

In reviewing cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court noted that Villegas’ claims were predicated on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because she was a pretrial detainee, not a convicted prisoner. Although the court found that prison and jail officials are granted some latitude in the operation of their institutions, “here the recognized government interest in detention of illegal aliens is regulatory,” that is, for the purpose of “ensuring the appearance of aliens at future immigration proceedings” and “preventing danger to the community.” Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001).

The court chose to follow Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) and Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993) [PLN, Sept. 1993, p.1] in regard to Villegas’ deliberate indifference claim, which, the district court wrote, “requires a court to assess whether society considers the risk that the prisoner complains of to be so grave that it violates contemporary standards of decency to expose anyone unwilling to such a risk. In other words, the prisoner must show that the risk of which he complains is not one that today’s society chooses to tolerate.”

The district court also cited the case of Brawley v. State of Washington, 712 F.Supp.2d 1208 (W.D. Wash. 2010) [PLN, Dec. 2010, p.10], which found “Common sense ... tells us that it is not good practice to shackle women to a hospital bed when they are in labor....” The court noted that Villegas had “not been convicted of a crime or engaged in violent conduct ... her shackling was medically and physically unnecessary and resulted in the infliction of excessive pain and a mental disorder.” The court further noted that shackling pregnant prisoners was contrary to the policies of the American Medical Association and American College of Obstetricians, Rule 33 of the United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, and clearly violated the Eighth Amendment.

Villegas’ First Amendment claims were denied except for a breach of contract claim that was dismissed without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Villegas’ state constitutional claims were left for resolution in state court and dismissed without prejudice. The court granted Villegas’ motion for partial summary judgment as to the shackling and denial of the breast pump, and granted the defendants’ motion in part as to other claims. The case then proceeded to trial. See: Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County, 2011 WL 1601480.

On August 18, 2011, a federal jury awarded Villegas $200,000 in damages after deliberating for about an hour. Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said the county would appeal. Following the verdict, Villegas petitioned the district court for permission to remain in the U.S. under a U-visa, which is intended for victims of crime who are in the country illegally.

“We think the level of misconduct has risen to such a high level that she deserves a U-visa for what she suffered,” said Elliott Ozment, one of Villegas’ attorneys. “She has been the victim of a terrible, terrible wrong.” See: Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00219.

Additional sources: Tennessean, Nashville City Paper, CNN

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Related legal case

Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County