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Prisoners Suing for Being Shackled During Childbirth

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According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, last year, four percent of state prisoners were pregnant. And as the number of imprisoned women grows more jails are dealing with females in labor. Ten years ago, Illinois became the first state to ban the shackling of women in labor. In recent months New York, California, and Texas have also passed shackling bans. But as the national movement against shackling gains momentum some formerly incarcerated women in Illinois are saying that the law in Illinois isn't being enforced. Last week five women filed a class action lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff's office. The status was denied but the women are moving forward with individual cases. For WBEZ, Shannon Heffernan has the story.

When Simone Jackson was arrested for burglary, she was three months pregnant. As she awaited trial, she qualified for the program MOMS where pregnant women receive drug treatment at a facility outside the jail.

MOMS is for non-violent offenders who aren't considered escape risks. Counselors transport the women to and from prenatal doctor appointments without handcuffs. The women can move freely around the unit.

But when Jackson arrived at a hospital to give birth, officials from the sheriff's department shackled her to her bed.

JACKSON: The chain was really short, so I can't move. So has the pain get worser and worser, its just an unbearable feeling.

As Jackson's labor progressed, the nurse requested the shackles be removed.

JACKSON: Certain things she had to do to prep me, I needed my legs open, once I receive the epidural, I need to sit in a certain position.

Jackson says the nurse called her supervisor, who also asked the correctional officer remove the shackles, insisting there was no way a woman in labor could escape.

JACKSON: And they said, 'Well its our policy to do this.'

So Jackson says she remained hand cuffed and shackled as she delivered her baby.

JACKSON: The feeling that I had was very...restricted. I felt trapped. I felt like I wasn't human.

After delivery Jackson says she remained in shackles for five days. Because of the shackles she had to use a bed pan and couldn't shower. When she was discharged from the hospital, she went back to being supervised by the MOMS program. Her counselor drove her to the MOMS facility without handcuffs.

JACKSON: When I got there I wasn't a security risk. And when I left there I wasn't a risk. But when I was in labor, I was considered a high risk.

Two of the other women suing the sheriff say they were shackled during labor, but unshackled right before delivering their child. A third woman, says she remained shackled during a cesarian section.

Tom Morrissey, the lawyer representing Jackson, says what happened to these women was illegal.

MORRISSEY: Because there is an Illinois statute that says once a woman goes into labor she cannot be shackled. In addition Federal law would indicate that is unconstitutional under the 14th amendment because it's really punishment and these are people that are pre-trial detainees.

In other words, they haven't been found guilty yet.

Sheriff Tom Dart's office denied comment for this story. And the position of his office is unclear. In a letter to the Tribune the sheriff says their policy is in line with state law, but a representative from the office has testified that its standard operating procedure to shackle a woman up until a doctor ask they be removed for delivery.

Dart's letter also appears to justify shackling as a security measure and claims that women in labor have escaped. Though the superintendent of the women's division testified that in her 16 years working for Cook County, a woman in labor has never even attempted to flee.

Dr. Sherman Elias, Charmian of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern Hospital says shackles pose a real risk to women. If they're unable to move, labor can be more painful and could interfere with emergency procedures, where the seconds it may take to unlock a woman, really matter.

ELIAS: This is inhumane. And this is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman's life. And to subject a woman to such an indignity is unconscionable. To me it goes along with things like water boarding and some of the most inhumane things we can do to another person.

Women in other states have reported permanent hip damage preventing future natural births and hernias requiring surgery. And according to Dr. Elias, its not just the mothers who are at risk.

ELIAS: For example, the uterus in a pregnancy is a large organ that can lay on the major blood vessels in the abandon, and if the woman can't roll around it can actually cause the blood getting to the placenta to decrease and can cause a problem with the baby getting enough oxygen during labor.

The MOMS program, which houses a maximum of 16 women, no longer transfers supervision to external operations. But as of this summer, policies regarding the rest of pregnant women in Cook County Jail, remain the same.
Simone Jackson's case, along with the cases of the three other women, are expected to go to trial next year.

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