BY Daniel Landsman
Former JPI Intern
In November 2008, Jennifer Farrar was arrested for cashing fake payroll checks and booked into Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Farrar went into labor during a hearing in January 2009 and was rushed to the hospital, shackled and chained. When she arrived at the hospital, the belly chain was removed but her hands and feet remained cuffed, despite doctors and nurses asking for their removal. Finally, when it came time to push, all but one cuff was removed, leaving her left arm cuffed to the hospital bed while she was giving birth.
Farrar became one of the many women to give birth while under the custody of a prison or jail and with one or more of their limbs shackled.
Women throughout the country are at risk of being subjected to the same treatment Jennifer Farrah received during the birth of her child. 29 states (report was completed before legislation was passed in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) do not have state laws preventing the shackling of pregnant women who are in the custody of correctional systems during childbirth. Of those 29 states, 21 have departmental policies banning or regulating the practice. The remaining seven states view women in labor as a safety risk that must be shackled at the ankles, wrists, and across the belly. These shackles can cause serious health risks during childbirth and are clear violations of our protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
It seems that state laws or departmental policies addressing the issue are not enough. Take, for example, the State of Tennessee. Following a lawsuit against the city of Nashville, after a woman in the U.S. without documentation was detained for driving without a license and forced to endure the pains of labor while cuffed to a hospital bed, the Tennessee Department of Corrections created a policy against the use of restraints. However, the policy did not specifically ban the practice during the total duration of labor. Instead, the policy gives discretion to corrections officers, directing that “restraint devices and methods employed during movement and transportation be appropriate to the medical and security needs of the inmate”. In other words, because women are likely to be at the prison when they go into labor, they can be shackled while they are being taken to the hospital and in any movement throughout the hospital.
Similarly, despite state legislation to end the practice in New York, women continued to be shackled during labor. According to a report by the Correction Association of New York, 23 of 27 women interviewed were shackled during pregnancy in direct violation of a law banning the practice.
As the population of women in prison continues to grow— an increase of 100,000 since 1980—we cannot allow state and federal prisons to continue the barbaric act of shackling women during childbirth. These states need to enact legislation (or even policy) that contains clear language banning the practice, such as the bill enacted in Washington, D.C. in 2013. The bill provides many rights to pregnant women in the correctional system, including banning shackling of pregnant women beginning in their third trimester.
Passing legislation or enacting policy is an important step in the process of stopping this practice, correction officers must be trained on anti-shackling laws as they are passed and women must be properly educated on their rights under anti-shackling laws. States need to clearly communicate to the Department of Corrections and the correctional officers that the practice of shackling women in labor is no long acceptable. A shift in attitude about shackling women during labor is a long time coming and will likely go a long way to ensuring the safety and well-being of women and their babies.