By Rebecca Nelson
Melissa Hall claims that, as an inmate in the Milwaukee County Jail, she was shackled during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. Now she’s fighting back and hoping to end the much-condemned practice.
Melissa Hall couldn’t hold her partner’s hand, so, as she wheezed through painful contractions and obeyed the nurse’s directives to push, push, push, she squeezed the chain shackling her to the hospital bed.
When Hall, then 25, went into labor in April 2013, she was two months into a year-long sentence at the Milwaukee County Jail. In her delivery room at St. Francis Hospital, a heavy manacle around her right wrist kept her fastened to the bed. There was less than a foot of give, severely limiting her movement. A cuff on her left ankle — heavy, metal, tight — kept her leg bound straight. Both cuffs dug into her flesh.
The chains made it difficult to administer the epidural. It worked on only part of her body, leaving her numb from the waist down on her left side while her right side blazed with pain. She couldn’t scoot back on the bed, so she had to lie flat while she pushed. Throughout the three hours she was in labor, whenever she had to go to the bathroom, armed guards wrapped another chain around her small frame. That one rested on her belly.
And when Hall held her baby boy, Jesus, for the first time, and looked into his brown eyes, she had to put a pillow between his tiny body and the crook of her arm so he wouldn’t get hit by her chains.
When Hall talks through these allegations with me, in July, it’s been four months since she sued the county of Milwaukee — as well as its former sheriff, Trump-loving incendiary David Clarke, in his capacity as the jail’s top law enforcement official — claiming that her rights were violated when she was shackled for the two days she spent in the hospital. The fight is playing out at the federal level, too: In July, Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Dick Durbin introduced legislation that would ban the shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons. But thousands of jails and prisons across the country are run by states, which have their own laws around shackling — if they have any at all.
Since 1999, 22 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that limits the use of restraints on pregnant women behind bars. Those state laws, however, vary widely, and even in states that have these laws, there’s no guarantee they will be followed. Thirteen years after Illinois became the first state to pass a law restricting shackling, the state’s Cook County Jail in 2012 agreed to pay $4.1 million to settle claims brought by 80 women who said they’d been shackled while pregnant or in labor. And a 2015 report from the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog nonprofit, revealed that of the 27 women they interviewed who had given birth in New York prisons since the state passed its shackling law in 2009, 23 said they were shackled during labor or delivery.
Wisconsin has no laws restricting the shackling of pregnant inmates. The Milwaukee County Jail’s current policy on shackling, revised in February, states that “restraints will not be used on inmates who are known to be pregnant unless based on an individualized determination that such restraints are reasonably necessary.” But in 2013, when Hall was incarcerated there, the jail had a blanket policy that required every inmate to be shackled for hospital care, with no exceptions for women who were pregnant or in labor. “Inmates in the hospital will be restrained by a handcuff and leg iron attached to the side rail of the bed,” it said.
This month, Hall filed a motion seeking to elevate her lawsuit to class-action status. She claims that between 2010 and February of this year, at least 45 other female inmates at the jail were shackled during labor, delivery, and postpartum care. (According to court documents, the county denies any wrongdoing, though a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department declined to comment for this story.)
There’s no way to know how many inmates are shackled during labor and delivery every year — if jails and prisons keep data on this, they’re not sharing it with the public. According to the Vera Institute, a criminal justice reform nonprofit, about 220,000 women were in prisons and jails in the U.S. in 2015. A 2004 Justice Department survey found that 4 percent of state and 3 percent of federal inmates were pregnant when they were put behind bars.
Senator Booker, a longtime advocate for prison reform, says he was appalled when he first heard about the practice. “The stories I was hearing were just really something that seemed like it should’ve been from a medieval era,” he says, “not from the United States of America that professes ideals of liberty and justice.”
Hall, now 29, is a little over five feet and bone-thin, with long, coal-black hair. Despite her stature, she exudes toughness. Three of her four kids — Saida, 11; Aliana, 6; and Miliana, 2 — are in the kitchen here at her mom’s house in Milwaukee, baking brownies and yellow cupcakes. Her son, Jesus, who’s now 4, leans on the couch in the living room, where we’re sitting, close to his mom but absorbed in a game on her phone.
It’s been four years since she was released from jail (in the end, she served only six months of her sentence). As her mom’s 13 birds trill, she reflects on the day Jesus, whom she calls Kicho, was born. For the most part, she talks quickly, recounting the details with little emotion. But her cadence slows as the weight of that day comes back.
“Everything was going through my mind. Dang, for one bad mistake this is happening,” she says. “One bad thing can change everything.”
Hall doesn’t remember much about the night that led to her incarceration. She knows there were shots, though — lots of shots. It was New Year’s Eve 2012, and, she says, she had been drinking much more than she usually does. In the months prior, she’d been fighting with her partner, Jesus Zepeda-Lopez, and he’d moved to his mom’s house while they were working things out. Despite their disagreements, they’d planned to spend the evening together. (Although Zepeda-Lopez came by Hall’s mom’s house the day I spent with her, he did not participate in an interview for this story.)
After midnight, she still hadn’t heard from Zepeda-Lopez, and she got worked up. She went over to his mother’s house, and, according to court documents, carved into the side of his mom’s van. Hall drove away, then came back a short time later and kicked the passenger-side mirror of the van. When Zepeda-Lopez came outside, she hit him in the face. She came back a third time and, finding a 2×4 on the ground, used it to break multiple windows of his mom’s home. A few weeks later, she left threatening voicemails for Zepeda-Lopez, in which she vowed to kill him and his brother.
Altogether, she was charged with misdemeanor battery, criminal damage to property, bail jumping, and unlawful use of phone. The battery and bail jumping charges were ultimately dropped, and she pleaded guilty to the other two charges, for which she was put on probation. After a few months of court-ordered anger-management sessions and check-ins with her probation officer, she moved and broke off contact with the court, according to court documents. Because she’d failed to comply with the terms of her probation, she was ordered, in February 2013, to serve a year in jail. When she entered the Milwaukee County Jail later that month, she was seven months pregnant with the couple’s third child.
“My heart dropped to the ground,” she says of the moment she realized she’d have to serve her sentence while pregnant. “I can’t believe I’m going to be here this whole time. I’m not going to be able to see my son. I’m going to have my son in jail.”
In jail, her “bunkies” — cellmates — came and went. Her only constant was the baby inside of her. “I can’t wait to go home and then go see your dad and your sisters,” she recalls telling Jesus. “We’re going to be out of here soon. Don’t worry.”
Around 3 a.m. on April 11, she felt herself cramping — her first sign that she was in labor. By then, so close to giving birth, she had moved to a small cell in the jail’s infirmary, where she says she was locked for five hours without any medical care. To keep calm, she focused on her baby. Stay there, she cooed. Just relax. And, most important: Don’t come out.
Finally, around 8 a.m., two security guards — known as gunners for their imposing weapons — came to take her to the hospital, she says. They shackled her ankles together and put her in handcuffs. Then they wrapped a chain around her belly and connected the handcuffs. (During labor and delivery, she says, the belly chain was removed; one ankle and one wrist were chained to the bed.)
“I didn’t think they were going to chain me to go to a hospital, to go have a baby,” Hall says. She points to her vagina. “There’s going to be a head right there. Where am I going to run to?”
At the hospital, Hall’s doctor repeatedly asked for the chains to be removed, she tells me. But the gunners wouldn’t relent.
“My head was just racing of negative things that was gonna happen. What if, what if, what if, what if?” she recalls. “What if something goes wrong with Kicho, and I’m in these chains?”
The Milwaukee County Jail has a troubling history of allegations of mistreatment. In 2016,while incarcerated there, including a newborn whose mother says she was forced to give birth in her cell. And in June, a jury awarded to a former inmate who says she was repeatedly raped by a guard. (The county has since filed a motion for another trial, arguing that new evidence undermines the inmate’s claims of assault.)
In December, in response to a letter from Gwen Moore, the U.S. congresswoman for Milwaukee, the Justice Department said it would consider launching a civil rights investigation into the deaths and quality of health care provided at the jail. Moore told me that she attributes those conditions at the jail to former Sheriff David Clarke, who, in her opinion, has a “basic lack of humanitarian sentiment.” Clarke, a bombastic fixture of right-wing media who has called Planned Parenthood “Planned Genocide” and Black Lives Matter “Black Lies Matter,” resigned his post in August to work at a pro-Trump super PAC.
Clarke did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But in a 2015 deposition, he defended the practice of shackling, claiming that it is necessary to protect hospital staff and guards, and to prevent escape. “So even if they are in the hospital bed — I don’t care if it is a pregnant female — they are going to be shackled or tied somehow to that bed,” he said at the time. When asked if that included a woman in labor, “actually giving birth to a child,” Clarke replied, “Sure.”
As sheriff, he took a hard line on punishment for nonviolent offenders, and has said that rehabilitation is “not something for the criminal justice system to do.”
Senator Booker vehemently disagrees with that mentality.
“Everyone merits some type of mercy,” he says. “We may go to prison. We may have to serve a sentence. We may have to pay a price for our crime. But we don’t surrender our humanity.”
Despite the shackles, Hall’s labor and delivery went normally, and her baby was healthy. But for women who experience medical complications, chains can be life-threatening.
“If a woman is shackled in any way, that impairs our ability to provide emergency medical care,” says Carolyn Sufrin, an OB/GYN who wrote about incarcerated pregnant women in her book, Jailcare. “We don’t have time to be talking to a guard and saying, ‘Excuse me, officer. Can you please take out the key, find the key, unlock these restraints so that I can provide medical care?’ and then to have to — sometimes they refuse — have a discussion about why it’s necessary.”
The medical community seems to be in universal agreement that shackling is not only dangerous, but needlessly cruel. The American Medical Association brands the practice “barbaric.” The American Public Health Association says that women “must never be shackled during labor and delivery.” And the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls it “demeaning and unnecessary,” citing, among other things, an increased risk of falls, along with a decreased ability of a woman to protect her belly if she does fall.
Even if there are no medical complications, shackling strips a woman of her basic dignity. Hall says everyone in the hospital who saw her manacles looked at her with contempt. “You see somebody in chains, and it says ‘Milwaukee Jail,’ and you see police in front of their door, you’re going to think, Oh, my god. That’s a horrible person. What did she do?” One nurse, she says, thought she murdered someone. (A spokeswoman for the hospital declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality.)
The reason for this shackling, so jailhouse conventional wisdom goes, is that, should an inmate be left unrestrained, she might hurt medical staff or herself. Or, seeing an opening, she might take the opportunity to flee.
She’s a criminal, after all.
But in reality, the risk that a woman is going to ignore her contractions, overcome armed guards, and flee a hospital wearing only a standard-issue gown is minimal at most. According to the American Medical Association, no woman in labor has ever attempted escape.
Part of the problem is that jails and prisons are, for the most part, not designed with women in mind, says Diana McHugh, the director of communications for the Women’s Prison Association, a nonprofit that advocates for women in the criminal justice system in New York City. Men, who commit a much greater percentage of violent crimes, are often shackled if they need to go to the hospital. No one gives much thought to whether the same treatment is appropriate for women.
In the same way that racism is reflected in the criminal justice system, says Booker — who notes that African Americans are about five times more likely than whites to go to prison for drug offenses despite doing drugs at about the same rate — sexism manifests there, too. “The problem with prisons is that they so often have become the embodiment of a lot of the unfinished business of this country,” he says. “The unfairness that has been heaped upon women historically is still evident today in our prison system. And we have to confront that. Own up to that. And then work to change that.”
Rocking on the porch swing outside her mom’s house, her youngest daughter, Miliana, in her lap, Hall stares off as she recalls what happened. She’s told her story so many times, but when she thinks about what she’ll tell Jesus when he starts asking about how he was born, her tough demeanor cracks. “It’s a memory that I have to keep forever, but it’s a memory I don’t want to tell my son,” she says.
Hall says she reads the news more now, pays closer attention to how people are treated in the system. She’s become a vocal critic of Clarke and the conditions at the jail.
Sometimes she wishes she could stop talking about that horrible day, stop reliving the nightmare, move on with her life. Ultimately, though, she says she has a responsibility to speak out.
“If I just stay quiet, it would just keep going on and on and on,” she says. She hopes that her lawsuit will end the practice at the jail, and maybe even in jails in other states. “Then I’ll be like, ‘OK, we did something good. Something good came out of it.’”
This article originally ran on Cosmopolitan