USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

February 28, 1999

USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

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"The doctor came and said that yes, this baby is coming right now, and started to prepare the bed for delivery. Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery, and they couldn't put my feet in the stirrups. My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs...Finally the officer came and unlocked the shackles from my ankles. My baby was born then. I stayed in the delivery room with my baby for a little while, but then the officer put the leg shackles and handcuffs back on me and I was taken out of the delivery room."
"Maria Jones" describing how she gave birth while an inmate of Cook County Jail, Chicago, 1998.

Around the USA, it is common for restraints to be used on sick and pregnant incarcerated women when they are transported to and kept in hospital, regardless of whether they have a history of violence (which only a minority have) and regardless of whether they have ever absconded or attempted to escape (which few women have).

On 18 November, 1998, Amnesty International delegates visited Madera County Hospital in California, where female prisoners are taken when they are seriously ill or in labour and for a short period after giving birth. The ward is locked. Inside the ward are four armed guards. Yet every inmate is chained by a leg to her bed. An inmate showed the Amnesty International delegates her shackle. She could lie on her side but she could not roll over.

The New York City Department of Corrections' policy prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant inmates admitted to hospital for delivery "unless the inmate attempts to escape at the hospital or the inmate engages in violent behaviour at the hospital which presents a danger of injury."(11) However, Amnesty International has received reports that six New York City prisoners, none of whom had attempted to escape or had a history of violence, were restrained while in hospital for delivery in 1998. One woman reported that she gave birth alone in the labour room as she screamed and lay handcuffed to the bed. Another woman reported that she was shackled to the bed after the birth of her baby by caesarian section even though a doctor had requested that, because of her surgery, she be allowed to walk around. This is the report provided of how another of the women was treated:

"While inducing her labor she was put into handcuffs. They took the handcuffs off when the baby was about to be born. After the baby was born she was shackled in the recovery room. She was shackled while she held the baby. Had to walk with shackles when she went to the baby. She asked the officer to hold the baby while she went to pick something up. The officer said it was against the rules. She had to manoeuvre with the shackles and the baby to pick up the item. In the room she had a civilian roommate and the roommate had visitors and she had to cover the shackles, she said she felt so ashamed....She said she was traumatized and humiliated by the shackles. She was shackled when she saw her baby in the hospital nursery (a long distance from the room). Passing visitors were staring and making remarks. She was shackled when she took a shower; only one time when she was not." (12)

Amnesty International considers that there is no sound reason for authorities to routinely shackle and handcuff pregnant women or women who have just given birth and who are under armed guard. The use of restraints in these circumstances is cruel and degrading. It also endangers the woman and her child, as described by physician Dr Patricia Garcia

"Women in labor need to be mobile so that they can assume various positions as needed and so they can quickly be moved to an operating room. Having the woman in shackles compromises the ability to manipulate her legs into the proper position for necessary treatment. The mother and baby's health could be compromised if there were complications during delivery, such as haemorrhage or decrease in fetal heart tones." (13)