One small step for pregnant prisoners UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Friday, October 2, 2009

One small step for pregnant prisoners UPDATE

Posted By on Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 11:50 AM

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given new life to a lawsuit by an Arkanas prison inmate who objected to being shackled to a bed while delivering a baby despite severe contractions and the wishes of medical personnel that she be freed.

A three-judge appeals court panel had overruled a district judge and said both a prison guard, Patricia Turensky, and Prison Director Larry Norris were immune from suit as state employees. The guard and Norris argued that it was reasonable to shackle a pregnant inmate in the final stages of a difficult delivery --  not unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

The 8th Circuit ruled en banc today -- on a 6-5 split decision -- that the suit should be reinstated against the guard, though not Norris because he was not directly involved in the care the inmate received. District Judge Jim Moody had said claims against both the guard and Norris should go to trial.

The court was unanimous on releasing Norris from liability. That rubs prison advocates a little raw because they believe he had to be aware that the policies he backed had the practical effect of overuse of shackles on pregnant inmates. His angry reaction to efforts to change that policy at the legislature is also typical of the prison's institutional view of outside critics. Only the bravest legislator or governor has ever dared push back.

It's a big case with potential national implications depending on what happens at trial in the district court.

Arkansas judges on the 8th Circuit split on the case -- Lavensky Smith with the inmate and Bobby Shepherd with the guard.

UPDATE: The ACLU hails today's decision as a strong precedent against shackling.


NEW YORK – Ruling in the case of an Arkansas woman who was shackled to her hospital bed while in labor in 2003, a federal appeals court today said that constitutional protections against shackling pregnant women during labor had been clearly established by decisions of the Supreme Court and the lower courts. This is the first time a circuit court has made such a determination. The full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals made the ruling today in the case of ACLU client Shawanna Nelson. 

“This is a historic decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals that affirms the dignity of all women and mothers in America ,” said Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Correctional officials across the country are now on notice that they can no longer engage in this widespread practice.”

Nelson was a 29-year-old non-violent offender who was six months pregnant with her second child when she was incarcerated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADOC) in June 2003. Three months later, after going into labor, she was taken to a local hospital where correctional officers shackled her legs to opposite sides of the bed. Nelson remained shackled to the bed for several hours of labor until she was finally taken to the delivery room.

The shackles caused Nelson cramps and intense pain, as she could not adjust her position during contractions. She was unshackled during delivery, but was immediately re-shackled after the birth of her son. After childbirth, the use of shackles caused her to soil the sheets of her bed because she could not be unshackled quickly enough to get to a bathroom.

“Restraining a pregnant woman can pose undue health risks to the woman and her pregnancy,” said Diana Kasdan , staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “Today’s decision reaffirms that pregnant women in prison do not lose their right to safe and humane treatment.”

Nelson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against ADOC and several ADOC officials, and a federal district court judge ruled that a jury should decide whether her treatment violated the constitution. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, dismissed Nelson’s case by ruling that her shackling was not unconstitutional. The ACLU represented Nelson in a subsequent hearing before the full Eighth Circuit Court which found that legal precedent clearly establishes the constitutional protections against shackling pregnant women in labor, paving the way for Nelson’s lawsuit to go to trial.

“Shackling pregnant women is not only dangerous it is inhumane,” said Rita Sklar , Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “The importance of this decision cannot be overstated.”

The National Perinatal Association, American College of Nurse Midwives, American Medical Women’s Association, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and dozens of other public health and advocacy organizations that are dedicated to protecting the health and rights of women and their children also opposed the prison's shackling of Nelson.

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