Federal Court Condemns Shackling, Vindicates Woman

A new federal court decision adds weight to the campaign to ban the shackling of pregnant women.

The Nashville Sheriff’s Office violated a woman’s rights by shackling her while she was in labor and after she gave birth, a federal district court ruled yesterday.

The decision adds to a growing body of case law that finds the restraint of pregnant women to violate the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency.

This case dates back to 2008, when Juana Villegas was pulled over and arrested for driving without a license in Nashville, Tennessee. Her arrest raised concerns about racial profiling and the city’s participation in a controversial program with the U.S. Justice Department to enlist local police in enforcing federal immigration laws.

Villegas was nine months pregnant at the time, and went into labor shortly after being jailed. The jail nurse called an ambulance and Villegas was taken to a local hospital to give birth. For the trip, she was placed on a stretcher with her wrists cuffed in front of her and both legs shackled together, even though one of the officers questioned whether this was a wise idea, should she give birth in the ambulance.

At the hospital, 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.

All this despite the fact that at least one officer was always assigned to watch Villegas – and the fact that the maternity unit was in a locked ward of the hospital.

Finally, when readying Villegas to leave the hospital, the officers would not allow her to take the breast pump the nurse gave her back to the jail, citing “safety concerns.” Villegas subsequently developed mastitis, an infection and engorgement of the breasts that one medical expert described as horrendously painful.

The Court’s Decision

The court ruled that by shackling Villegas during the final stages of labor and again after she gave birth to her baby, the sheriff’s office and its personnel unconstitutionally interfered with her medical care and subjected her and her fetus to medical risks, and also inflicted physical and mental suffering. In the words of one expert quoted in the court’s decision:

“While in the ambulance, Ms. Villegas had to face the terror that her baby might die. She did not realize that an officer was in the ambulance. She believed that there was no one to remove the shackles.

Just as her labor had been short with the births of her two previous children, she believed that this labor would also be short. Yet, during this labor, she could not move or open her legs. Unable to move or open her legs, she feared that her son would not be able to be delivered. She has to sit with the terror that her baby might die inside of her body.”

Given Villegas’ lack of prior history with the criminal justice system and the physical demands of labor and childbirth, the court found that she was not “a danger to anyone.” Because Villegas had just been arrested and had not been convicted of a crime, the court also found that the way she was treated amounted to unconstitutional punishment.

The decision is noteworthy for several other reasons. First, the court found that the jail officers violated Villegas’ rights by denying her the breast pump provided by the hospital, an action that amounted to deliberate and unconstitutional indifference to her medical needs.

Next, the court refuted the sheriff’s contentions that Villegas needed to be restrained because she was undocumented and therefore automatically posed a flight risk and a risk to public safety. “There is not any empirical support,” the decision maintains, for the claims of defendants’ experts that undocumented immigrants, “as a group, commit crimes that endanger the public safety.”

Finally, the decision explains that a growing body of federal policies, state statutes, official positions taken by medical associations, and international human rights standards regard shackling as inhumane, degrading, and dangerous to both pregnant women and their fetuses. All of these developments demonstrate that shackling pregnant women violates our society’s evolving standards of decency.

Legislative Solutions

In the legislative arena, Idaho recently became the first state in 2011 to adopt a new statute limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women. The governor signed the bill on April 6, after it passed both houses in unanimous votes.

Bills are advancing in California, Florida, and Hawaii, and awaiting action in a number of other states. California currently has a law banning the restraint of pregnant women during labor, childbirth, and post-partum recovery. The new bill aims to enact a broader ban on restraints throughout pregnancy and to ensure that jails as well as prisons do not restrain women during transit to court appearances or medical appointments. It passed the legislature with no opposition last year but was vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger.

The Impact of Redress

The federal judge in Villegas’s case will be scheduling a hearing on the issue of monetary damages owed to Villegas for the violation of her rights. In addition to being a tangible symbol of the harm inflicted on Villegas, monetary damage awards can be a powerful incentive to other jails and prisons to reconsider their policies.

The case, Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Davidson County/Nashville Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, was decided by U.S. District Court Judge William J. Haynes, Jr.