Shackled While Giving Birth

Loevy & Loevy has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Melissa Hall and at least 40 other women who were forced by Milwaukee County Jail to give birth while shackled in chains. Ms. Hall was forced to receive pre-natal care, labor, give birth, and undergo post-partum treatment all while shackled. Armed deputies were present for the entire delivery. When Ms. Hall needed to use the bathroom, she was made to wear a “belly chain,” with her wrists chained to her belly and her legs shackled to each other. Medical professionals had difficulty administering her epidural due to the shackles, and her doctor’s requests to remove the chains were refused. This inhumane treatment is utterly unnecessary—the risk of flight during labor and delivery is so miniscule as to be ridiculous.

Not only is shackling women during birth utterly pointless and inhumane, it is incredibly dangerous to both the mother and baby. Shackles can make it impossible for medical staff to assess hemorrhaging, rapidly perform an emergency caesarian section, or move a woman to address an umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s windpipe. Belly chains and leg irons can impact the mother’s balance and increase the risk of falls thereby endangering the life and health of the child. Cuffing a woman’s hands may prevent her from breaking a fall and hurt her ability to protect her womb. Preventing walking during the first stage of labor denies the mother the benefits of making labor quicker and reducing discomfort. Preventing walking during the postpartum phase enhances the risk of deep vein thrombosis and its life-threatening embolic complications. And complete freedom of motion is absolutely required during delivery because various pelvic and lower extremity manipulations are used to facilitate delivery, especially in difficult cases. None of that can happen in jails and prisons like Milwaukee County Jail that shackle women during childbirth.

To compound this heartless practice, women now are the fasting growing prison population in the United States, which will only increase the misery. While over 80-90% of the U.S. prison population is male, the number of women in prison jumped 646% between 1980 and 2010. To put this in perspective: almost one-third of the entire world’s female prison population is imprisoned in the United States. And as we lock up more women in prison, only 7% of adult female offenders are actually incarcerated for violent offenses. That’s a whole lot of non-violent women in prison. To make that even worse, the majority– 62% –of these incarcerated women are mothers of minor children. That means that a lot of non-violent moms who are locked away from their children. On top of that, nearly 5% of women prisoners are pregnant.

Sadly, Ms. Hall and the other women of Milwaukee County Jail who were forced to give birth in shackles are not alone. Many states require women to deliver their babies while shackled. And often, even when state law forbids the practice, prisons don’t follow the law. It is hard to imagine what motivates prison officials to act so cruelly. It is not consistent with safety or our values as a nation.

Ms. Hall’s lawsuit is receiving a lot of press attention (for example, read about the case here, here, here, and here). Hopefully, others will share the outrage, and lawsuits like this one will force jails and prisons to rethink their inhumane policies. We need laws banning shackling during births and, equally important, we need jails and prisons to follow those laws. Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop creating financial incentives to imprison non-violent people. This practice tears at families and destroys communities.

Melissa Hall with her son

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