Last week, a federal district court ruled that a Nashville woman’s rights were violated when she was shackled during childbirth while in custody of the sheriff’s office. In 2008, Juana Villegas was arrested for careless driving and driving without vehicle registration; she also lacked a driver’s license. Nine months pregnant, she was kept in custody when a check of her immigration status revealed that there was an existing order for deportation to Mexico. She gave birth a few days after she arrested.
Villegas’ legs were shackled together in the ambulance. When she got to the hospital, Rachel Roth reports in a piece for RHRealityCheck,
“Villegas was shackled at both hands and feet, or by one ankle, or not at all, depending on the officer on duty and whether she was obviously giving birth. The medical staff requested that she not be restrained at all, warning in particular of the possibility of blood clots from the use of leg irons. After she had the baby, Villegas was restrained by both legs whenever she got out of the hospital bed to go to the bathroom.”
Medical staff had asked officers to unshackled Villegas, and they refused. Even more callously, officers would not allow Villegas to bring the breast pump the nurse gave her back to jail, citing “safety concerns,” and Villegas subsequently developed mastitis. She was separated from her newborn son for two days after giving birth.
The sheriff’s office said that the danger of “illegal immigrants fleeing and engaging in illegal activities” justified the shackling. But U.S. District Court Judge William Haynes Jr. ruled that because Villegas was “neither a risk of flight nor a danger to anyone,” shackling her during childbirth and post-partum recovery violated her civil rights. Villegas will be awarded monetary damages in compensations for the violation.
This is a promising ruling for the many women who are shackled during childbirth in the U.S. prison system. As Roth points out, “monetary damage awards can be a powerful incentive to other jails and prisons to reconsider their policies.” Given the fact that the prison system seems to be doing a terrible job of providing services for pregnant women, an extremely vulnerable population, anything that would incentivize prisons to reform their procedures is a good step foward.
Photo from Flickr.