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When Shawanna Nelson was sent to McPherson women's prison in Newport on May 16, 2003, she was five months pregnant.
“I'm not saying I expected to be treated like a princess or a queen, but I really expected to be treated differently,” she recalls. What she did not expect was to be shackled to the delivery table with an 18-inch leg chain as she gave birth to her son Sept. 20, with nothing but Tylenol for her labor pains.
Nelson sued the Arkansas Department of Correction in federal court the following year, claiming the shackling violated her civil rights. Her case won at the district court level but on July 18, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling, citing a precedent which upheld the constitutionality of shackling hospitalized inmates in order to prevent escape attempts.
“The policy of placing a restraint on Nelson while in a hospital bed is unequivocally related to a penological goal and is not constitutionally excessive,” the court declared. “Nelson's experience does not rise to the level of unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”
Nelson intends to appeal, and has the support of various human rights and medical interest groups. She pointed out that there is no record of a woman ever having escaped while giving birth. “It's so painful and terrifying — there's no way it's possible,” she said.
But while she may have lost in court, the attention Nelson brought to the practice has prompted the prison system to change the way it handles pregnant inmates. Shortly after she brought her case, the Department of Correction replaced metal restraints with more flexible nylon ones, and created a new policy which allows pregnant inmates to be transported to the hospital unshackled.
Her suit, Nelson said, “was about letting people know.” She said the state “doesn't want everyone to know that stuff like that actually happens here — we try to hide it with soft restraint resolutions.”
According to court filings, Nelson was kept shackled until the time of delivery despite requests from medical personnel to unchain her, and re-shackled immediately afterwards. When she arrived at a Newport hospital, she was denied pain medication by Dr. Paul Hergenroeder, who explained in his deposition, “the more pain they have, they more they value the baby.”
Nelson, who weighed little more than 100 pounds at the time of her arrest on fraud and hot check charges, later had surgery to treat hernia-like symptoms resulting from the delivery of her son, who weighed in at over 9 pounds. She alleges that the shackling left her with permanent back pain and damage to her sciatic nerve.
“I literally have nightmares from this experience,” she said.
The population of female inmates in Arkansas has grown by more than 900 percent over the last 30 years, according to the Women's Prison Association, and policy makers have struggled to keep up with these changing demographics.
The policy that required Nelson to be shackled, for example, was a blanket policy that applied to all inmates undergoing medical procedures. Pregnant prisoners were not allowed to travel unshackled without gaining trusty status, but to gain that status, pregnant women had to participate in work details not suitable for their condition.
Dee Ann Newell, who provided prenatal and parenting classes to Arkansas inmates from 1992 to 2006 and now advocates on behalf of incarcerated parents and their children, says female inmates are uncomfortable speaking out when they feel their rights have been violated.